Raymond Chandler: I live for syntax

Raymond Chandler

I love Raymond Chandler and PG Wodehouse. Both attended Dulwich College in London. Both are great writers. Like Wodehouse, Chandler is famous for his similes.

I mentioned in my previous post how the writer Michael Connelly loves chapter 13 of Chandler’s 1949 novel, The Little Sister. Here is a passage from that chapter. The hero, the private detective Philip Marlowe, is driving around alone, feeling blue, in Los Angeles. See how he vividly describes the scene:

I drove on to the Oxnard cut-off and turned back along the ocean. The big eight-wheelers and sixteen-wheelers were streaming north, all hung over with orange lights. On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.

You catch the mood and the atmosphere.

Chandler had a way with words. “I live for syntax,” he once said. He can make you see and feel.

Here’s the opening paragraph from his most popular novel, The Big Sleep, published in 1939. See how the setting matches the mood of the hero, Philip Marlowe. All dressed up, he is looking forward to meeting a wealthy client:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Marlowe solves the case, but the ending is elegiac in its melancholy:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.

The bleak ending is characteristic of film noir. All of Chandler’s novels except Playback were made into movies.

Chandler himself worked for Hollywood, as did PG Wodehouse and many other successful writers of that era.

“Chandler wasn’t particularly happy writing for the pictures,” noted the writer Michael Dirda in the Times Literary Supplement, “and he is remembered as being peremptory with colleagues, requiring considerable babying and often acting like a prima donna.”

Chandler had his shortcomings. He once said, “To know me in the flesh is to pass onto better things”. He secretly romanced his young secretaries before he lost his job as an oilman and became a writer. And he drank too much.

But there can be no question about his literary talents.

Dashiell Hammett and he were the two most successful hard-boiled detective fiction writers.

They met only once – at the first annual get-together of The Black Mask magazine contributors in Los Angeles on January 11, 1936, says the Los Angeles Times.

Both wrote for the pulp fiction magazine.

Hammett was already a successful writer when they met, having written The Maltese Falcon in 1930 and The Thin Man in 1934.

Chandler was still writing short stories. The Big Sleep, his first novel, was published later – in 1939.

Chandler is the better writer, I think.

But Chandler thought highly of Hammett.

Chandler on Dashiell Hammett and crime fiction

Here’s Chandler’s homage to Hammett in his essay, The Simple Art of Murder:

He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before…

He made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.

Chandler then attacked the classic detective story and its admirers. He wrote:

There are still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini. These are the flustered old ladies–of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages–who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair.

Criticizing the classic detective story, Chandler stressed the need for realism:

But all this (and Hammett too) is for me not quite enough. The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defence will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

Writers could not ignore the corruption around them but, at the same time, they had to entertain their readers, said Chandler:

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.

Finally, Chandler outlined his idea of a proper crime novel and its hero:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Those were the last words of his essay – and he was absolutely right. Stories with heroes like Philip Marlowe have made life better for book lovers like me.

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