The Chandler Style by Martin Edwards
'The most durable thing in writing',
Raymond Chandler once said in a letter to a magazine editor, 'is style.' And the
style which Chandler himself brought to the hard-boiled crime story made him one of the
most admired American novelists, as well as - together with Hemmingway - the most
All seen of Chandler's novels are first-person narratives. The wry tone of his hero, Philip Marlowe, is established in the first paragraph of the first novel in the sequence, The Big Sleep:
"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."
Through Marlowe, Chandler was able to exploit to the full his gift for the wisecrack. In Farewell, My Lovely, Moose Malloy is said to look 'about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of an angel food', and when Marlowe is passed a photograph, he says it depicts a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.'
But there is much more to Chandler than witty and original phrase-making. To appreciate the books to the full, it helps to know a little about the author's life. Chandler was born in Chicago 1888, but his parents soon divorced and he moved with his mother to England. He had a classical education at Dulwich College where, like P. G. Wodehouse - who was only six years older - he acquired feeling for language which would permeate every sentence he wrote as an adult. Indeed, when his admirer J.B. Priestley remarked, 'They don't write like that at Dulwich,' Chandler commented 'That may be, but if I hadn't grown up on Latin and Greek, I doubt I would know so well how to draw the line between what I call a vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style.
Lack of money prevented Chandler from going up to either Oxford or Cambridge and, after a spell in the civil service, he returned to the United States at the age of twenty-three. He moved from job to job and served in the Canadian army in the First World Var. Following his discharge, he married a woman eighteen years his senior and went into the oil business, where he achieved much success in the boom years which preceded the Depression. But he was not a happy man; he womanised and drank too much, and eventually he lost his job.
He sought solace in writing. In England, he had turned out a number of poems, articles and reviews, but now he became interested in the tough crime fiction published in the 'pulp' magazines of the day. Chandler read widely in the mystery genre, but the intricate and bloodless novels of English writers, such a Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, appealed to him much less than the terse stories of Dashiell Hammett, who, according to Chandler, 'wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before'. But when Chandler tried his hand at crime, he resolved to get a bit more interested in people than in violent death'.
Chandler's first story, 'Blackmailers Don't Shoot', appeared in the Black Mask magazine in 1933 and was followed during the next five years by a score of powerfully written tales, crammed with imagery, which surpassed in quality the work of all his contemporaries. A careful writer, never prolific, Chandler was serving a long but invaluable literary apprenticeship. Devising puzzles was always less important to him than style. He said, 'I don't really seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously should,' and joked about solving plot problems by having a man come to the door with a gun Style mattered much more: 'I had learn American just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyse it. As a result, when I use slang . . . I do it deliberately.' And as he told one magazine editor whose proof-reader presumed to tidy up the Chandler grammar, 'When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.'
During the thirties, Chandler experimented with a number detective heroes. One of them, a forerunner of Marlowe, was called Mallory and that surname itself provides a clue to the concept with which Chandler grappled throughout his career - that of the private eye as chivalric knight of the modern age. In his essay 'The Simple Art of Murder', Chandler articulated his thinking in terms which have become famous. He said that for him the detective 'is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour... 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.'
In every one of the novels, the world is seen through Marlowe's eyes with Chandler's double vision: half-English, half-America; half-romantic, half-cynical. That sense of honour is everywhere apparent; typical examples in The Long Goodbye are the way in which Marlowe resists a married woman client's attempt to seduce him, and his reluctance to spend the five-thousand-dollar bill keeps in his safe because 'there was something wrong with the way I got it.' Yet there is often an element of moral ambiguity in the stories, for Marlowe is well aware that he is operating in a corrupt world. The sense of alienation from society at large, which Chandler seems to have felt throughout his life, is reflected in the detective's attitudes and helps give the books - for all that they are firmly rooted in a specific time and place, mid-century California -a modern and universal quality. What Chandler has to say, for instance, in Long Goodbye about friendship and betrayal, about police brutality and the dangers of concentrating too much power in the hands of a limited number of newspaper proprietors, might well have been written last week.
Marlowe was, as Chandler admitted, 'a creature of fantasy. He is in a false position because I put him there. In real life a man of his type would no more be a private detective than a university don.' Yet in a series of notes which he wrote about mystery novels, he said that crime fiction 'must be realistic as to character, setting and atmosphere'. That an essentially unreal character should become much more believable than, say, Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot is a mark of Chandler's literary skill. There is no better illustration of that skill than the way in which the locale of the books is portrayed. Wisecracks, naturally, play their part. Los Angeles has 'as much personality as a paper cup'. California is 'the department store state: the most of everything and the best of nothing'. The economy of expression, the use of similes, help to build up the picture. And crisp but illuminating contrasts are also brilliantly employed in longer passages, as in the second paragraph of The Little Sister:
'It was one of those clear, bright summer mornings we get in the early spring in California before the high fog sets in. The rains are over The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood Hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom.'
Inevitably, Chandler's vivid writing attracted the attention of Hollywood moguls and in 1943 he went to work as a script writer For Paramount Pictures. He worked on films which are still admired today, such as Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train, and his own novels were adapted for the big screen with much success, but the 'endless contention of tawdry egos in movie world irked him. Robert Mitchum explained he problem simply, and no doubt accurately, when he said that Chandler wasn't 'one of the boys'. Yet the discipline of turning out screenplay undoubtedly tightened Chandler's style: similes occur less frequently in the later novels, but his touch in establishing an incident or scene becomes ever surer. And whereas the story-line of The Big Sleep was an amalgam of two of the early pulp stories, the final novel, Playback, was based on a script which he wrote for Universal.
His wife's long illness in the 1950s caused Chandler much distress and increased his sense of isolation. After she died, he made an inept attempt at suicide and drank ever more heavily. He started to spend much more time in England, where he was lionised, but he was aware that the quality of his writing, like his health, was in decline. He decided to marry Marlowe off to a multi-millionaire's daughter, but he recognised that it was probably a mistake. In one of his last letters he said of his hero: 'I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.' A month later Chandler was dead; his funeral was attended by only a handful of people.
For all Chandler's personal unhappiness, his books continue to provide endless pleasure. There is so much to be savoured. W. H. Auden wrote that Chandler was 'interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place'. One of Chandler's most successful disciples, the novelist Robert B. Parker, has argued that the poet underestimated the triumphant quality of the novels: referring to the opening of The Little Sister, he says that Marlowe's triumph 'is not that he prevents the call houses. It is that he sees the jacaranda.' But few would disagree with Auden's conclusion that Chandler's books 'should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.'
First published in Folio, the magazine of the Folio Society, in 1989. This text may not be copied or altered in any way, without the prior consent of the author and publisher
BIBLIOGRAPHY of Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe in all books)
- The Big Sleep (Knopf and Hamish Hamilton, 1939)
- Farewell My Lovely (Knopf and Hamish Hamilton, 1940)
- The High Window (Knopf, 1942; Hamish Hamilton, 1943)
- The Lady in the Lake (Knopf, 1943; Hamish Hamilton, 1944)
- The Little Sister (Hamish Hamilton, and Houghton Mifflin, 1949)
- The Long Goodbye (Hamish Hamilton, 1953; Houghton Mifflin, 1954)