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The Mystery of Raymond Chandler

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Recently, it seems that nearly every review I read about Raymond Chandler contains a crypto-apologia for Chandler’s continuing appeal. What is the reason, they don’t exactly ask: it couldn’t be the plots, not even the prose, as unique as it is; he was a hack, is the implication, he’s a mystery they can’t stop talking about.

But all true art is mystery, won’t let you put your finger on it, take its pulse, declare it dead, send it to the morgue. The critics would love to do that with Chandler, escape the low-life, hard-boiled paradox and return to the hard-wired academic safety of Faulkner, James, Melville, Hawthorne et al., the ‘legitimate’ American canon (wherever he is, Chandler chortles up his sleeve).

I have read many times practically every story Chandler ever wrote; for decades I have been Marlowe’s silent sidekick as we traveled those dim noir corridors, those scented forests, those starlit lakesides and sunburned streets, those twisting mountain roads and empty cabins among the evergreens, and I still want to go there again.

Chandler’s books are spells that spin gold from the mundane and pour it into your lap: the lobby of the perfume corporation, the foyer of the magnate’s mansion, the stairway to the gin joint above the street, the kitchen of the empty cabin out by the lake, before the screen door on the booze-loving woman’s front porch, the long stairway from the beach to the house of the seeker of the jade necklace, the darkness of night roads, the carpeted stairs leading down to silence in the deathly empty house up in the hills, the boat from the pier to the floating casino– each of these image-moments is etched into the reader’s mind because he has been there, back then, times past, with Marlowe.

This is the magic of Chandler, plain and unprecedented, with quirks in his words and tricks in his moods that can’t and won’t be found in any other American writer: not Hammet, not MacDonald, not Spillane, not Leonard, not Ellroy, not even Burke. The only other writer who can claim anything like this mystery-magic is Conan Doyle, for whom the mystery is the key, with the special ambience of Victorian London.

But Chandler will always have pre-war southern California. What he gives us in our own time is more than another time, another place; he gives us a gift that transcends plot and whodunnit parameters, he gives us the adventure we are on, Marlowe and I: we are alone as ever a human can be on scorching afternoons in that shabby, seldom-visited office (with the bottle of rye in the desk), until the knockout blonde comes in and lights up. We are still and always alone in those places the soul knows well, where the unexpected must always be expected, through long stretched-out moments in the tautness of light slanting toward dusk, casting sinister shadows over landscapes of treachery and danger on the edge of unspoken despair, in silences scented with gin and gunpowder, rye and pine resin, car exhaust, ocean air, linoleum and old carpet, sounded with the creak of wood, lit in sunbeams filled with motes of dust or following the quest of headlights swerving up mountain roads deep into evergreens, where secrets will be revealed that have nothing to do with such unrealities as plot and story, but everything to do with why hearts beat, hands tremble and sweat, minds puzzle, eyes turn and look back, bodies seek rest, and fall at last.

Alone in the silent heat-wave air of the naked sun out by the mountain lake, break into one of the empty cabins and look around. Open a kitchen cabinet, take down the box of flour and pour it out, find what has been hidden there with all its unspoken realizations, move alone in the same searing silence out to the lakeshore and onto the dock, happen to look down from the sizzling air into the cool, shimmering watery depths so like your very own: run back to shore, find a big stone, lug it out onto the dock and heave it into the rocking calm of the water to bring up, in the bubbling and hissing roil, whatever is down there; follow where it points…

You are in the thrall of Chandler, and are grateful…unless you’re one of the canon flunkies, mystified by the guy’s immortal popularity.

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About Robert Brady

  • I’ve spent the past couple of mornings reading The Long Goodbye, with fits of both pleasure and annoyance. Chandler has a distinct view of a certain type of American life, and the story is fairly absorbing. It’s genre fiction, and I can’t claim to see a whole lot of depth to it beyond what’s there, so I must confess I’m a little baffled by all the blurbists who think of him as some kind of first-rate literary artist.

    Detectives in hard-boiled fiction live in a kind of purgatory, I think: they live above the inferno of the damned and well below the paradise of the decadent wealthy, and on a moral scale they are leagues beyond either — they, and Marlowe is fairly typical in this regard, tend to be somewhat smug observers of rottenness, which makes him a little tiresome as a narrator. Marlowe speaks in a know-it-all voice — he wears his toughness on his sleeve and wisecracks overmuch, which is why the hard-boiled tone has always been so ripe for parody. Beneath that voice, though, you get a raw moral sense of the distance of American lives from each other — that of Marlowe versus the writer Roger Wade, for example.

    For those who haven’t read the novel — and I haven’t yet finished it (although I’ve seen the Robert Altman film many times, so I have a hunch how it ends) — it has a couple of plots running that eventually dovetail. One is that Marlowe meets a drunken prettyboy named Terry Lennox and helps him get out of town just after Lennox’s rich slutty wife Sylvia turns up dead. Lennox — whom Marlowe believes is innocent — goes to Mexico, where he presumably kills himself out of guilt; case closed, as far as the cops are concerned, although not for Marlowe, who doesn’t believe Lennox committed suicide and still pokes away at a case everyone wants to cover up. Marlowe then gets another job looking after a commercial writer, Roger Wade, an alcoholic who is unable to finish his latest novel, possibly because someone is blackmailing him. The Wades live right near the Lennoxes; Wade’s wife is a real wacko and her doctor is Sylvia’s brother-in-law, Wade had an affair with Sylvia, Wade winds up dead as well, and, well, that’s about as far as I’ve read.

    Anyway, there were an interesting couple of passages in this morning’s reading that contrast Marlowe and Wade.

    Marlowe talks about what a rotten town L.A. is, but that he chooses to live here, chooses not to pursue the American Dream of a house with five kids and a mortgage. That kind of life, he seems to say, is not only a dead end, but one which avoids life; for him, living means taking your chances visiting this glorious hellhole of despair — with its adultery, whiskey (it runs freely), cigarettes, and casual deaths — a place where he could never afford to be a permanent resident.

    Roger, on the other hand, is a resident; he lives the good life by writing historical romances about a world which he knows never existed: a fanciful past that was actually far less sanitary and sensual than he claims. The real world of the esteemed past was, of course, as much of a cesspool as the world he lives in. He’s a liar and a fake, and he’s been one so long that he has to wash away the nightmare of what he has become with booze. He lives that L.A. dream people want, and it has exhausted him.

    Marlowe’s life, for all its shortcomings, isn’t lived dishonestly. His ethics can be slippery, but there’s a moral core to him which keeps him from falling victim to the allure of the easy way out.

  • EJ

    I’ve been enthralled with Chandler/Marlowe for years; an excellent biography of the writer came out a few years ago. It’s interesting to note how deeply the Marlowe novels have penetrated American literature (George Pelacanos, anyone?) and how little respect he gets from critics but how MUCH he gets from other writers. For all those critics dismissive of Chandler’s place in the canon, it’s worth noting that Faulkner penned the screenplay for the Big Sleep…..

  • …and neither Faulkner, Howard Hawks, nor Chandler could fill in that plothole about the Sternwood chauffeur’s death.

  • Chandler is worth reading just for the beauty of his prose alone.

  • For a good recent biography, see Tom Hiney, _Raymond Chandler_, Vintage (1997). Academics have become increasingly accepting of Chandler (and also of other noir figures such as Hammett and James M. Cain), though it is still a somewhat grudging acceptance. Detective fiction in general has suffered in the academy: partly because of its popularity (academics like nothing more than to be obscure) but also because many detective novels, to be quite honest, are not good literature – even if they are good mysteries. (Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as perfect as they are in creating a world that is unbelievably memorable and durable and the wonderful characters that populate it, are not always that well-written; the same goes for Agatha Christie, whose stories are remarkably clever and intriguing, but whose writing is often just passable). At the hands of a master, though, the genre can be a powerful medium for the projection of a world-view. For Hammett, this was an image of a world gone irredeemably wrong, where the hero could neither expect nor generate logic or morality. For Chandler, though, the hero managed to retain a sense of nobility even in the face of a corrupt and sour world – a conflict that extends not only into the portrayal of the Southern California landscape that, once read, will always remain in one’s memory, but also in to the very texture of the language itself. The language is “hard-boiled”, a tone that works in Chandler, where it reflects the broader themes and world-view, but which quickly lapses into self-parody at the hands of a lesser writer (and even, one might argue, at times in Chandler – _The Long Goodbye_ being perhaps the work most given to this criticism).

    I suspect that it won’t be too long before Chandler is accepted as an integral part of the American canon and studied in more literature courses (cf. also the Library of America edition of his works). One interesting academic discussion of Chandler and Hammett was done in a 1971 Ph.D. dissertation by none other than Robert Parker, who went on to write the line of Spenser mysteries (for what it’s worth, I didn’t really think that Parker grasped the essence of Chandler or, for that matter, Hammett), which may be available for browsing at your local university library. The best recent work I have read is by William Marling, whose _The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler_ is really quite good.

    Even more incidentally, I recently watched the Coen brothers’ film _The Big Lebowski_, which is vaguely based on (or at least an homage to) _The Big Sleep_. (Another of their works, _Miller’s Crossing_, is even more closely based on Hammett’s _The Glass Key_.)

  • Jonathan,

    I agree almost completely on the comparative ‘literature’ aspect, but somehow still hold Chandler above the parsing fray. Thanks for the insights into a subject rich in discoveries; thanks also for the treasure trove of titles on Chandler and noir…that will be my autumn/winter reading.

  • Raymond Chandler (accompanied by Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald and other pulp fictionists) defined the modern detective novel. As popular as Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s sleuths may be, the fact is that when we think of a detective, what comes to mind is the lone-wolf, hard-boiled-romantic, trenchcoat-clad existentialist anti-hero epitomized by Philip Marlowe. In film, in literature, in comic books, even in commercials, the same Marlovian figure is repeatedly portrayed, parodied or alluded to… Chandler created a modern myth, a combination of the American cowboy and the doomed Oedipus — perhaps the first literary investigator.

    Modernist writers have found in the pulp detective plot a fresh expression of man’s absurdist quest for meaning — thus, despite its lowly origins, the hard-boiled detective novel has had a profound influence on contemporary literature… from where i’m sitting, i can see William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, both the strange descendants of Marlowe’s prose.

    All this from a guy who wrote for something like a dollar a word.

  • From where I’m sitting, not a bad gig!

  • Roberta Ballantine

    Please note that when searching for “Marlowe-Mystery,” both Philip Marlowe and Christopher Marlowe are continually displayed. I believe Raymond Chandler intended comparison, and in a basic way, created his Philip Marlowe from Christopher. Christopher Marlowe was, all his life (as well as being a hell of a writer,which would have appealed to Chandler), a bravo spy with an innate, generous sense of the humanity of those he had to deal with.
    Raymond Chandler attended Dulwich College south of London, where the famous Elizabethan theatrical diary of Philip Henslowe is kept, and evidence suggests that Chandler was one of a number of excellent writers who’d worked for the English Secret Service and therefore knew something of Christopher Marlowe’s work abroad for England, 1593–1621.