Raymond Chandler’s mean streets

chandler1Last night I watched a rerun of a TV program on Raymond Chandler, one of my heroes (along with Philip Marlowe).

George V Higgins the crime writer was interviewed and said that Chandler had found what he wanted to do, even though it was late in life, and moreover he did it superbly, yet ironically he was such an unhappy man. He never wrote the book he wanted to write. He hated the vulgarity of Hollywood. “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”, he wrote. His marriage was deeply fulfilling yet emotionally restrictive.

All his life Chandler (1888-1959) was a loner, a rather bitter character who drank too much and ended up alcoholic. He was a fastidious snob, passionate about the few things he loved. He became a great writer, wrote four seminal novels of detective fiction, then went into a long decline. His influence on popular literature and cinema is immense.

The most striking thing about Chandler’s writing is his use of metaphors:

“He had as much personality as a paper cup”.

“Plants…with stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men”.

“Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself, you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the message on the underside”.

“as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”.

“as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket”.

“Alcohol is like love: the first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that, you just take the girl’s clothes off”.

Chandler was never very confident about his plotting. He could write but he couldn’t plot. He used plot ideas from earlier books and stories, and always remembered the advice he received from an early editor and quotes in his essay The Simple Art of Murder. “If you run out of ideas, have a man come through the door with a gun”. Unfortunately in practice this led to plot confusion at times. Taken together with his sometimes romantic, sometimes melodramatic dialogue, this has resulted in some parts of his books beginning to look a bit dated, a bit mannered.

Why then is he such a good writer, and his books so readable? Perhaps Chandler’s own dilemma – lonely, bitter, melancholic, yet stubbornly struggling towards a greater command of his medium – touches a responsive, subconscious chord in his readers. A chord touched by the tattered, cynical knight Marlowe, who drinks too much and usually has no friends, and who struggles resolutely against overwhelming corruption, his only right to do so that he himself is an honest man. It’s the tone of the books as much as anything that makes them great, a tone that was transferred to the cinema and eventually labelled by writers such as François Truffaut ‘film noir’ (the term was used firstly to describe the lighting in 30s gangster films, but has come to mean the gritty crime stories best exemplified by those of Chandler).

Part of Chandler’s problem as a writer was his fastidiousness as a critic. He had a bitter exactitude of taste about the English language. A book of letters, Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962), vividly and poignantly expresses his loves, for literature, for his wife, his cats. He was a very great and perceptive critic.

Chandler began to write, in a field he thought poorly of, at the age of 45. He had been an executive in an oil company ruined by the ’29 crash, and needed to look around him for another source of income. He had wanted to write, and picked on the detective story market because he thought the writing of its practitioners so poor that even he could do better. He admired Dashiell Hammett, and imitated him, but really he would have liked to write like Somerset Maugham. In many ways Chandler reminds me of Scott Fitzgerald: the alcoholism, the battle with Hollywood, the fineness of taste, the courageous attempt to write a great book, and the tragic failure to do so (in Fitzgerald’s case the situation is amplified by the great book he did write and the greater one he left unfinished at his death).

Perhaps Chandler’s severity of self criticism held him back. He completed only seven novels. There is in his writing a battle between fineness of taste and self-pity.

His legacy includes not only his own work, but the influence he had on Ross Macdonald, whose books began to appear from 1949 onwards (and were made into successful films as well). Macdonald is a much greater novelist than Chandler, but he would not have turned to crime writing had not Chandler shown that good writing and pulp fiction were not incompatible. And Chandler’s writing has inspired more film and television series than anyone’s other than Georges Simenon.

What Chandler achieved was to externalise his bitterness and self-doubt in a portrait of a city, Los Angeles, at once false and melodramatic, yet vividly true, at least of the ‘mean streets’. Down those streets goes Marlowe the alter ego, a bitter, battered, boyhood hero, gaining the allegiance of the hero-worshipper and cynic we have become.

1933-41 Twenty four stories for pulp magazines (most of these are worth reading)
1939 The Big Sleep (Probably Chandler’s best book)
1940 Farewell My Lovely
1942 The High Window
1943 The Lady in the Lake
1945 The Simple Art of Murder (the best critique of the detective story yet written)
1949 The Little Sister
1953 The Long Goodbye (Chandler’s longest and worst book, full of self-pity)
1958 Playback
1959 Poodle Springs (unfinished)

1944 Double Indemnity (co-written with Billy Wilder)
1945 The Blue Dahlia
1950 Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock had it rewritten)

BogartFilms based on Chandler’s books
1944 Murder My Sweet *****(Edward Dmytryk directs Dick Powell and Claire Trevor)
1946 The Blue Dahlia*** (George Marshall directs Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake)
1946 The Big Sleep ***** (Howard Hawks directs Humphrey Bogart)
1947 Lady in the Lake *** (Robert Montgomery directs himself)
1969 Marlowe (Paul Bogart directs James Garner)
1973 The Long Goodbye ***** (Robert Altman directs Elliott Gould)
1975 Farewell My Lovely ***** (Dick Richards directs Robert Mitchum)
1978 The Big Sleep * (Michael Winner directs Robert Mitchum)

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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