Raymond Chandler: An Appreciation
—opening paragraph from The Big Sleep
I was browsing in the local thrift store yesterday, in between bouts of hacking cough and sneezing, and stumbled across a re-issue hardcover edition of The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler's first novel, from 1939, I read it all again yesterday, with the same pleasure I always have had, reading it before, and again.
Chandler was not the Great Literary Writer that wrote the Great American Novel—assuming anyone has actually done that yet. He wrote "genre fiction" rather than mainstream fiction—oh, let's call it what the mainstream fiction writers actually would like to call it, but never do: fine art fiction.
Chandler was a populist writer, rather than a "fine art" writer, a prickly person, hard to get along with, opinionated and surly and often self-defeating. He struggled his entire life to make ends meet, did not always treat his wife well, though he professed to love her dearly; and I believe him, because the effect her death had on him was devastating. He was not a perfect man. He no doubt drank too much. Born in Chicago, educated in England, settled in Southern California—which he both loved and hated, for its exquisite beauty and decadent tawdriness. I've been to Chandler's Hollywood, if 60 years late: it's still the same landmarks, the same streets, as shiny and tawdry now as back then. I can walk or drive those streets and feel as if I'm in the car with Marlowe, thinking his thoughts.
I've read every word Chandler ever wrote at least three times, including the sketches and unfinished pieces, whatever I have been able to find. Some of the novels, like The Long Goodbye, I've read more often than that. Chandler's plots were not his strong point: sometimes the plots don't actually make sense, or tie themselves up in tight knots with no loose ends. But then, life is more like that, than it's like an English drawing-room mystery (Christie and her ilk), wherein all the loose ends make sense at the end.
The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.
In fact, although Chandler has been attacked by literary critics on the weakness of his plots, I wonder if he wasn't slyly commenting via his non-linear plot-schemas on the artificial contrivances of narrative plot within his own genre, the murder mystery. It seems certain that he knew the famous Virginia Woolf quote about why she wrote the way she did: Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
For that matter, the entire hard-boiled detective fiction genre, whose most famous representatives are Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain, shares this tendency towards having plots more messily life-like than neatly logical. Many characters in these novels, even the good guys, are morally ambiguous. The whole film noir genre in film, famously dependent on hard-boiled pulp fiction for its plots and stories and mood, and even its lighting if you get right down to it, sometimes rewrote the endings of the novels, to make them tie up more neatly. That was not always a good choice, because a pat and tidy ending to a story is not always as emotionally resonant an ending that leaves an ambiguous feeling in the reader or viewer. I've never liked the "happy ending" of the Bogart-Bacall version of The Big Sleep, although the rest of the movie is fine, because it reverses the novel's ending for essentially Hollywood star reasons. Hollywood likes happy endings, so it tends to do that sort of thing, which is why real writers don't like it much. Heck, Hollywood even changed the ending of the film version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town to make it a happier ending; so, nothing's sacred, nothing's safe from meddling. The only thing that saves that revised ending in The Big Sleep from ruining the rest of the film is that it features Bogart and Bacall. The remake of The Big Sleep some decades later, set in England and starring Robert Mitchum, preserves the novel's original plot much better, and as a result is a more satisfying movie—even though moving the novel's setting from Los Angeles to London bothered some critics. It doesn't bother me, because otherwise that movie version sticks close to the strengths of the novel itself.
Robert Mitchum, by the way, is the actor who lives indelibly in my own mind as the ultimate Philip Marlowe. I hear his voice in my head whenever I re-read Farewell, My Lovely. I almost always hear his voice as Marlowe's; the only exception being that I can sometimes hear Marlowe's voice in The Big Sleep as Bogart's.
If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come.
The strong points of Chandler's writing are his sense of character, motivation, and mood. No-one describes the mood of Los Angeles' many parts better than Chandler. No one had his turn of phrase. He made the rules, and he broke the mold. Post-Chandler Los Angeles writing always evokes Chandler's voice, in echo if not in fact.
Chandler only wrote seven novels, some short stories, a bit of genuinely insightful non-fiction, and a few screenplays. But his mark on the art of writing in unforgettable, his voice like no one else's.
When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.
Let me get back to that fine art fiction idea I just came up with. There is a certain snottiness to it, the idea that some fiction is artistic while the rest is not. Of course, in cinema, we have "art-house films" and the rest; so maybe the analogy is apt. Poetry too has become increasingly polarized between populist poetry and "professional" poetry, without a lot of middle ground; the poles there can be exemplified by Maya Angelou writing verse for Hallmark Cards on the one end, and academic professor-poets who write poems no-one but other professor-poets reads, or wants to read. The sort of thing poet-critics and literary-theorists read, and no-one else wants to.
But this is why crappy writing in so-called mainstream fiction ends up on the best-seller lists while much better writing in so-called genre fiction never does: it's already been ghettoized. Even when the quality of the writing in genre fiction is light years better than anything in fine-art-fiction, it gets ignored by the literary critics. Most of the novels that people will recommend to you—because they're fine-art-fiction that has made it to the best-seller list—are not very good reads. Most are written in that bland and boring "no-style" style perfected by journalists and applied to thriller fiction. The ones that are written in more experimental styles, or structures, or formats—fiction that self-consciously wants to be thought of as fine-art-fiction—is in fact mainstream plot with special effects. Very Hollywood; very shallow.
By comparison, the writing in a Chandler novel is so memorable that I want to read it over and over again, every few years, just to relish the turn pithy of phrase, the inventive description, the unusual blend of contemplation and action. Marlowe often pauses for a moment of reflection, even in the midst of action, to make an aside; it could even be a literary aside, or about chess. It is often existential with a hard-boiled post-Camus lyricism unlike anyhting else in literature.
It got darker. The glare of the red neon sign spread farther and farther across the ceiling. I sat up on the bed and put my feet on the floor and rubbed the back of my neck.
I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
—Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
Marlowe the detective is a thoughtful thug, a genuinely honest man trying to make a small difference in a corrupt world, and willing to do anything to protect his clients; which also means, as an honest man, that he is often broke, because he refuses dishonest jobs for dishonest clients.
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
—from Red Wind (1938)
I want to re-read the Chandler novels for the pure pleasure of the writing. It doesn't matter that I already know the ending—unlike most murder mysteries, wherein knowing who did it, knowing how it all comes out, means you're done, the puzzle is solved, and there's no interest in re-reading the book as literature. So, I read Chandler again, already knowing whodunit, and not caring. The pleasure is in keeping Marlowe's company, hearing him think, hearing him crack wise to another character. This is reading for the pure pleasure of reading good writing.
Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.
The moment a man begins to talk about technique that's proof that he is fresh out of ideas.
The motion picture is like a picture of a lady in a half-piece bathing suit. If she wore a few more clothes, you might be intrigued. If she wore no clothes at all, you might be shocked. But the way it is, you are occupied with noticing that her knees are too bony and that her toenails are too large. The modern film tries too hard to be real. Its techniques of illusion are so perfect that it requires no contribution form the audience but a mouthful of popcorn.
At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.
An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence.
The Raymond Chandler Quote of the Week.