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.