Raymond Chandler’s short stories

1 Chandler

Between December 1933 and September 1941 Raymond Chandler wrote 21 stories for the mystery story pulp magazines – of which the best known is Black Mask –  in an attempt to learn the craft of writer and to make some much needed money. He had just lost his job as an oil company executive at the age of 44 during the Great Depression, allegedly for alcoholism and erratic behaviour: a trait that was to continue all his life.

These stories have been collected, together with a handful of others, in an edition published by Everyman’s Library (Knopf) in 2002. It’s a book I read and reread with pleasure, and as good, as a collection, as anything written in the genre of crime fiction (it also contains four of Chandler’s stories in other genres).

The stories are fascinating for two reasons. As you read (the stories are grouped in chronological order) you can see Chandler develop as a writer. Even more interestingly, he never developed much. Chandler may have picked the pulps by chance: he said he felt at the time that he mightn’t be a writer, but at least he could write better than the authors of Black Mask and other magazines. But he was right, instinctively, to try the short story market. Chandler was always essentially a short story writer, not a novelist. He excelled at the creation of atmosphere, and in telling a story, at evocatively described action, the heart of any short story (and of most films). But short stories didn’t pay much, nor collections of them sell many copies. Novels could be more profitable, but as a novelist Chandler fumbled badly. When, in 1939, he wrote his first novel, he found plotting intensely difficult, and never mastered characterisation (as most detective story writers don’t). Chandler was a fastidious, painstaking writer. He said he threw out most of what he wrote.

The second interesting thing about the stories is that many of them formed the basis for most of his novels. Eleven stories were “cannibalised” (Chandler’s word) for use in his first five novels and one projected one. This suggests that Chandler could work creatively only in the short story form. Although some think otherwise, for me the two last books Chandler completed, The Long Goodbye and Playback (based on an unproduced screenplay), are failures. Neither are based on short stories, though the character Terry Lennox in the first of them is sketched as Larry Batzel in the story “The Curtain” of 1936. They are Chandler’s two attempts at a “novel” not a “crime story”. Although they are filled with instances of Chandler’s wondrous prose style, I don’t think they really work as novels. He also left behind a few chapters of a novel in draft form, completed by Robert B Parker under the title Poodle Springs. Chandler may never have completed or wanted it published. As it stands it is ninety percent Parker’s work.

As he was such a slow producer of fiction Chandler also worked elsewhere, as a scriptwriter for Hollywood. He should have been a natural and a big success in the field, judging by his short stories. But Chandler hated Hollywood, the vulgarity and the greed, the petty tyranny and the treachery and the hypocrisy. His first films, written from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely by John Paxton and Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, made in 1944), then The Big Sleep, by William Faulkner and Howard Hawks (1946), from his first novel of the same name, were a success. Both Hawks and Faulkner respected Chandler as a writer. But Chandler also worked with Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, both of whom he detested. They returned the compliment. His scripts were usually thrown out or altered. I think both Double Indemnity (1944) and Strangers On a Train (1951) would have been much better films had this not happened. The Blue Dahlia (1946) was from an original screenplay by Chandler, but aside from some attempts to deal with evidence of post war trauma was resolutely directed by George Marshall as an old school melodrama, and is very genre. As it turned out Hollywood merely gave Chandler a lot of money, and enough frustration for him to spend it on alcohol. It was a sterile experience for him.

In between times, he wrote five of the greatest crime novels ever written. Despite what went before, for most people, the five books define the genre.

2 Black Mask

Chandler was  a writer in what you could call the ‘long short story’ format. His 11 stories in Black Mask run to about 50 pages (20,000 words), and his 10 for Dime Detective and other magazines run to 60-70 pages (30,000 words). This length would have been set by the magazine, yet it suggests to me the format Chandler might have been comfortable with: the novella/novelette length book, produced so plentifully by Georges Simenon, most of whose books run to just over 100 pages of text (about 60,000 words). Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, by comparison, is about 100,000 words.  He found those last 40,000 difficult.

There are some interesting parallels here between the two writers for those wanting to see them. Simenon started writing in 1931. He’d really started 10 years before that writing for the pulps and learning his trade, under many pseudonyms. He too was a superbly descriptive writer with a command of language few have equalled in the crime story field. Many of his books have been filmed, and made the transition easily because they are themselves cinematic. Chandler (and Hammett) admired Simenon, and although Maigret uses his intuition while Philip Marlowe uses his gun, both detectives are part of the ‘realist’ revision of the detective story that was born in the 1930s. Both Simenon (1952) and Chandler (1959) were President of the Mystery Writers of America. And Simenon was a great drinker and an incessant pipe smoker like Chandler. The differences between the two are also revealing. Simenon was, early in life, a man greedy for experience, who travelled incessantly and became involved in every sphere of activity he encountered. He found, he said, plots for his books from the stories people told him. Chandler, a cultured man with a biting tongue and a reserved British upbringing, recoiled from those things he found distasteful. Simenon lived through the crises he described in his novels, Chandler laboriously hammered out plots then tried painstakingly to turn them into good prose. Simenon created through excision, Chandler through enhancement. Both created work quite unlike other crime story writers, yet both are classed by readers and critics alike as such.

Nevertheless I think Chandler is more Damon Runyon than Erle Stanley Gardner.

As a writer Simenon was much more successful than Chandler (he was more successful than most writers), partly I think because Simenon was able to impose the book format he was comfortable with on publishers, while Chandler spent his time agonising over the creation of books in the more marketable yet uncongenial novel length format. Chandler was a highly cultured man, with an admiration for great literature and a hope he might one day himself write a work of literature. His first published book had been one of poetry. This explains the tension in his writing between his evocative use of language and the violence he described. Chandler was writing for the crime story market, and his editor told him not to describe surroundings so much, just have a man come through the door with a gun. That’s what the readers wanted.

So here is a man working in the area of pulp fiction, or alternatively in the crass world of Hollywood, who really wants to be a novelist and write a work of literature, but cannot fully master the novel form. The odd result was fiction ostensibly in the ‘hard boiled’ detective genre, yet really nothing like it in tone. Chandler created a mouthpiece, a viewpoint, from which the hoodlums and the thugs who kill one another in his stories could be viewed with some compassion by someone who thought their lives deserved being sorted out, and some little justice applied. This was new. The books are really urban crime romances, and have become intensely nostalgic over the years.

3 BlackMask

It took Chandler just two attempts to master the simple form he assayed, and start to do unusual things with it. His first story was called “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933), a story about some incriminating letters belonging to a movie star which have been stolen and which she can buy back, for a price. However the story gets lost among the bodyguards, corrupt policemen, underworld mob leaders, fixers and thugs who are all somehow involved. There’s plenty of gun fights, sapping, hold ups and confrontations to keep you entertained, but the thread of plot on which they are strung is quickly lost sight of, and is developed in a confused manner heavy on coincidence. Who is the blackmailer? Are the letters real or a publicity stunt? Does the hero (called Mallory in this story) fall for the Hollywood star and let her off, or is she really the heroine? The writing is quite distinguished, though the descriptions don’t yet have Chandler’s later fluency and exactness. Conversations are full of cliches. The construction is the weak point, Chandler at first writing to formula. There are literary touches, such as: “I loathe these dives…The people are dissipated without grace; sinful without irony”. But the writing mainly follows a set pattern, with a character introduced, a quick portrait of them sketched, then some tough guy dialogue, then some shooting, then an explanation, and so on throughout the tale. The title is probably the most memorable part: it sounds like underworld slang, like ‘the big sleep’, yet we have Chandler’s word for it he made both up.

Chandler, in a letter to Paul Brooks of Houghton Mifflin, summed up: “Take the story called “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”, the first I ever wrote. It took me five months to write this thing, it has enough action for five stories and the whole thing is a goddam pose…{both] “Smart Aleck Kill” and “BDS” are pure pastiche”. Chandler’s second story “Smark-Aleck Kill” (1934) featured another detective, called John Dalmas. It too was about a movie star being blackmailed. It had the line: “Two men came in with guns in their hands”, according to the formula. The cure all in this world is whiskey, an energy boost for lack of sleep, medicine for a beating or sapping, a constant social interchange for hoodlums or senators, cops or criminals. It was all a dead end. This is not why we read Chandler’s stories. But a change was soon evident.

4 Dashiell-Hammett

One reason for the change was another writer for Black Mask. Dashiell Hammett published 27 short stories and novels in that magazine 1922-1930, and, Chandler soon realised, stood out from the rest. Hammett was once a private detective, and wrote his books as though they were case reports or court evidence. Succinct, exact description, believable motive, awareness of ambiguity and deceit in people’s behaviour, and sometimes quite complex narrative structure. His last but one completed novel, The Glass Key, was among the best novels written in 1930s America. Each of his five novels has been filmed, some several times. Though Hammett was limited as a writer, what he did he did supremely well, as Chandler saw. His realism grew out of the Depression, and a knowledge of the many lives ruined by that tragedy. It was fiction made for the disillusion caused by WWII, and the stream of film noir that poured out of Hollywood during the 1940s. Chandler didn’t imitate Hammett, he emulated him, equalled his distinctive precision of prose style, then added poetry and romance.

“Finger Man” of 1934 was the first story Chandler was happy with: but not too happy. He did, however, use the plot of a man winning a lot of money at a sleazy gambling house who hires Marlowe (as the detective is called in my edition) to protect him. This forms a sub plot involving Mrs Regan in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, a book over sub plotted, but a triumph of integrating all the action scenes to form an exciting narrative, probably the best Chandler ever did in construction. “Killer in the Rain” of 1935, with a title that evokes every film noir ever made, has a story that involves a man very like Moose Malloy, the big ex con from Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, who has a daughter Carmen who gets involved with a blackmailer, as Carmen Sternwood does in The Big Seep. The detective says of Tony Dravec, the big ex con who hires him: “I thought he was as crazy as a pair of waltzing mice, but I liked him”, and we begin to see one of Chandler’s characteristic stylistic devices, the distinctive simile. It may be because the plot element is familiar from The Big Sleep, or its film version, but I think this is Chandler’s first masterpiece, at least in the Black Mask perspective.

5 Finger Man

With “Nevada Gas” of 1935 Chandler attempted to vary the formulae, writing a love story about a gambler called Johnny De Ruse whose girl falls for a handsome gangster. This story, along with “Guns At Cyrano’s” and “Goldfish”, was to form a novel with the working title Zone of Twilight, according to notes found among Chandler’s papers, but the work was never done. “Spanish Blood” (1935) seems to me an attempt at the kind of story Hammett’s The Glass Key was, and is one of the best stories in the collection. Maybe that’s just because I liked The Glass Key, but I don’t think so. “Guns at Cyrano”s” (1936) continues the political theme, a story of city administration corruption and an ex detective called Ted Malvern who sorts things out. Another good story which also tries to sketch a relationship between Malvern and a girl, perhaps a little wobbly. It still makes for an engrossing tale.

“The Man Who Liked Dogs” of 1936 is an action tale about a detective called Ted Carmady who tries to trace a missing girl, who has a dog. He finds the dog, who leads him to two ex cons, one of whom is the man who likes dogs, and uncovers a nest of corruption. Parts of the tale were reused in Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s second novel, memorably in a scene where the detective is mugged, hidden away in a nursing home under sedation, but escapes and turns the tables on the thugs who imprisoned him. There is an over the top shoot out with machine guns, a memorable and brutal corrupt cop and the whole story is as exciting as a crime story can get.

“Noon Street Nemesis” and “Goldfish” both 1936 show Chandler’s mastery of the crime story, free of the errors in construction and awkwardness in dialogue he started with, highly entertaining reading. “The Curtain” of that same year is equally good: Chandler used parts of it for The Big Sleep (old fashioned soldier with errant daughter) and The Long Goodbye (old friend who is a lush and who gets bumped off by gangsters). The stories “Try The Girl” and “Mandarin’s Jade” of 1937 were both used in novels, Chandler’s first two, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. What I found interesting is how well they work as stories, even if you’ve read the novels. This might be simply because they have better pacing, simpler narratives, while the novels switch back and forward between several sub plots. “Red Wind” and “The King In Yellow” of 1938 are among the few stories of these later years not to be ‘cannibalised’ by Chandler for novels, though they are among the best of his stories. Both “Bay City Blues” (1938) and “The Lady in the Lake” of 1939 were so used, the latter the main source for the novel of the same name, a great story that seems to me to look forward to the work of Ross Macdonald. This cannibalisation was a sign that by now Chandler was at long last satisfied with his work.

But Chandler was soon to stop writing crime stories altogether. In 1939 he completed “Pearls Are A Nuisance”, “Trouble Is My Business” and “I’ll Be Waiting”, a short piece of 19 pages for the Saturday Evening Post. After that, he concentrated on writing, but never completed, a book of fantasy stories. There was an occasional crime story like “No Crime In The Mountains” of 1941. He in effect ceased to write creatively, and instead constructed masterpieces of novels from fragments of his short stories while hacking scripts for Hollywood.

I can’t help feeling success was bad for Raymond Chandler. I wish he had stayed on with the pulp magazines and tried to conform to their requirements while attempting to make art out of the product he was paid so badly for. Those short stories are pretty good. There’s about 12 or 13 great ones among them. Between the famous novels they gave birth to and the pervasiveness of his criticism of crime fiction, I hope they are not lost sight of.


Although constructing novels from previously written short stories doesn’t sound very creative, credit has to be given Chandler for the skill with which he did it.  One can only ask, why didn’t he continue to do so, as there were many more stories to be used as plots for a novel? Mention has been made of Zone of Twilight, the novel that was never written. And why didn’t he write more short stories?

One reason could have been Chandler’s growing celebrity. Critical notice was in reaction to his novels, written from 1939, (nobody looked critically at the stories then), and was confused. Some critics liked his writing but deployed the violence, others found him pretentious for a thriller writer. But he was being reviewed, and soon regarded as the writer who gave crime stories literary distinction (critics are such snobs). Chandler in turn was tempted to write novels. He had always wanted to be a literary figure, but never thought he had the talent. Now people were telling him he did. He was sick of the crime formulae, and had ambitions to bring out a volume of fantasy short stories. Somehow he never realised his ambitions. Chandler had transformed a genre of writing, made it his own, a unique type of writing no other writer has been able to duplicate. Yet it was a limited form, and one can sympathise with his need to move on. Perhaps Dashiell Hammett had felt the same, and so spent the last 30 years of his life agitating for rights for workers, and dying of TB, rather than writing novels. For both Chandler and Hammett it had become an unattractive world, the fifties spawning such a virulent anti communism in America  it seemed pro fascist. Senator Joseph McCarthy was one manifestation, and in crime fiction, Mickey Spillane another.

But if he wrote no great novel, Chandler was still a great writer. His non fiction prose is among his greatest achievements, the equal at least of his best stories. Chandler was a fine critic, and his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” says almost everything there is to say about the crime story, and in a very perceptive way. The essay has a much quoted passage usually applied to Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid”. Chandler’s letters have been collected, twice, and are a great joy to read. Chandler is one of the great letter writers. He has a remarkable ability to criticise his own writing that every writer should try to emulate.

Thirty years later another American poet, Bob Dylan, showed us the same place Raymond Chandler did. What we flee from is right where we’re heading, for which we have a fatal attraction (TS Eliot said so too). Dylan called it Desolation Row. From the sellout “…selling postcards of the hanging…”, the corrupt administrator, “…the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance…”, the corrupt police, “…the riot squad are restless, they need somewhere to go…”, seedy doctors, “Dr Filth, he keeps his world, inside of a leather cup, but all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up…”, and so it goes on. A dash of modish nihilism wrapped in a pretty pop song, not that different from Chandler’s good hearted despair wrapped in a crime thriller.  Earlier Dylan had noted that “…there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all” (“Love Minus Zero over No Limit”). That could be the last word on Raymond Chandler too.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


13 thoughts on “Raymond Chandler’s short stories

    1. The Collected Stories are published by Knopf (2002). You’ll find them on Amazon and they should still be available in stores. The Penguin editions (there are four volumes) are available still and could be also second hand.Well worth a read.

      1. Wikipedia also has a bibliography that lists the stories in publication order with details. I found reading them as a collection helped me see Chandler’s progression from Black Mask hack to creator of a world.And it’s a nicely produced volume too!

  1. That’s just what I’m also doing Darrin. I’ve read the novels and stories in no particular order over the years, some several times. Now I’ve just read the Everyman volume for the second time and am about to start on the novels in order. Might even try the letters again, which I enjoy a lot. I think Chandler is a great pulp fiction writer who became a great writer while still remaining a crime genre author. His example must give heart to many beginning writers.

  2. A very well written essay, I agree with all you say, I just read that same Everyman edition, followed by his novels in order. I do that every five years or so, takes me a few months. Chandler is my favorite writer, he’s always a joy to read.

  3. That’s exactly what I was hoping for David. Makes writing the piece worthwhile. Still, I’m surprised that someone who knows the field well as you do should have missed Chandler’s stories. You could also read his letters to find out what’s wrong with them (I don’t agree, but Chandler is an excellent critic of crime fiction).

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