this day in 1888 the late great crime novelist Raymond Chandler was born.
can read my Crime Beat column on Raymond Chandler below:
Raymond Chandler's Influence on Crime Novels and Films
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
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
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
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."
Note: The above column originally appeared
in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine.