I have a couple of unread books on my nightstand next to my bed and about a dozen more on a table in my basement office. But instead of reading these new novels and nonfiction books, I’m rereading Raymond Chandler’s classic crime thrillers.
As I recently read a newspaper piece about Robert Altman’s somewhat loose film adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, I had the urge to read the novel again for what is perhaps the 12th time since I first read all of his novels as a teenager so long ago. Chandler is that good, in my view.
The first detectives of popular fiction were gifted amateurs who solved murders like a parlor game, often to the dismay of the clueless, bumbling police. Hard-boiled detective fiction took a somewhat more realistic approach when Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton private detective, wrote short stories for Black Mask magazine in the 1930’s. Hammett would go on to write The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and other classic crime novels.
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish,” Raymond Chandler wrote of his fellow Black Mask contributor.
“He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
Chandler, in my view, surpassed Hammett to become the best crime writer America has produced. He has influenced several generations of crime writers and a good case can be made that he is the single most influential crime writer.
I recall a Dick Cavett TV program in the 1970’s that had Ed McBain, Robert Parker, P.D. James and Mickey Spillane as guests. Cavett asked the best-selling crime writers who had been their main influence and all save Spillane immediately answered Chandler. (Spillane named a comic book writer whose name escapes me).
Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. - from Chandler's novel Farewell, My Lovely.
Chandler admitted that Philip Marlowe, his Los Angeles wisecracking, incorruptible, hard drinking, tough guy private detective was not realistic. He said that a man like Marlowe would no more be a private detective than he would be a university don.
“The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man,” Chandler wrote in an essay. “He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.”
But Chandler also stated that crime fiction should be realistic in its character, setting and atmosphere. Chandler’s realism also clearly comes through in his observations, descriptions and dialogue.
The corridor which led to it had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives - from Chandler's novel The Little Sister.
Chandler led an unusual life. Born in Chicago and raised in Kansas and Ireland, he was educated in England, France and Germany. He worked as a reporter, poet and essayist before joining the Canadian Army to serve in combat during World War I.
He later became a successful oil executive but his heavy drinking caused him to be fired. He began writing crime stories for Black Mask when he was in his forties and at the age of 50, he published his first Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep.
I was wearing my powdered blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display hankerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaven 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. - from Chandler's novel The Big Sleep.
Chandler was devoted to his wife Cissy, a one-time beauty who was 18 years his senior. They moved frequently to different locations in Southern California and they rarely socialized.
Chandler was an avid letter writer and he corresponded with friends, other writers, editors and fans. I find his letters to be as brilliant as his novels. An editor working on a collection of his letters, asked her publisher — has Chandler ever written a dull line?
Chandler was hired by Hollywood to write the screenplay for the film Double Indemnity. Working with Billie Wilder, whom he disliked, Chandler produced a screenplay that was superior to the Cain novel in my estimation. With his screenplays and the films made from his novels, Chandler was a major film influence.
Tom Hiney, in his book Raymond Chandler: A Biography, quoted the movie journal Sequence, “Just as Chandler has many literary imitators, so has his work exercised a considerable influence on the treatment of crime in film. He helped to bring back to the cinema some of the healthy realism lost so carelessly in the 30’s to the demands of a minority censorship. What is certain, at any rate, is that since 1944 his work has done much to form the basis of a school of film making as indigenously American as the Western, the social comedy, the musical, and the gangster film.”
Chandler wanted Cary Grant to portray Philip Marlowe (think of Grant’s tough guy role in Mr. Lucky), but Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Eliot Gould, Powers Booth and others would take a turn playing Marlowe in films.
Clive Owen is preparing to portray Marlowe in the film Trouble is My Business.
James Garner, who played Chandler’s detective in 1969’s Marlowe, is my personal favorite.
Garner was big, handsome, tough, and he delivered the wisecracks very well. When Garner sat at his desk and pulled out his pipe, I saw the Marlowe that I envisioned from the novels.
Based on the Chandler novel The Little Sister, the film had a contemporary setting (in 1969). Had the film been properly set in the 1940’s, I think it would have been a near perfect adaption.
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. - from Chandler's novel Farewell, My Lovely.
Chandler never fully recovered from the loss of his wife. He said she was the center of his life for 30 years. During Chandler’s final years, he drank heavily and traveled aimlessly. He died on March 26, 1959 at the age of 70.
But Chandler’s influence lives on in crime novels and films. In his oft-quoted essay, The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler presented his definitive view of the private detective in fiction.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."
The above column originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine.