‘Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic’
Raymond Chandler, writing between 1939 and 1958, emerged almost as something of an antidote; what he was curing was a case of terminal loss of reality in the Crime Fiction of the age. During the inter-war years, the works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reigned supreme (with good reason!), promoting the ‘Clue-Puzzle’ form which delved into the problems of generally middle-class families, and allowed the reader to solve the case along with the detective, provided they were discerning enough to piece together the clues. These works also, conveniently, tied everything up in under 500 pages, ‘minding [their] own business, solving [their] own problems and answering [their] own questions.’ And this is what particularly irked Chandler, as it denied the long-reaching, sociological effects of murder on the community and, therefore, denied realism. To the man behind the words, crime was not cushy and it was definitely not an entertaining game of guess-who; it was dirty, gritty, and sometimes it even went unpunished. In his first novel, The Big Sleep, Chandler pioneered a new, disillusioned form of Crime Fiction which stressed a much darker, almost noir side of an essentially corrupted world. And, along with his wise-cracking, honourable detective Phillip Marlowe, he carved his seat firmly within the evolution of Crime Fiction, and created a sub-genre in its own right which many have emulated since.
First introduced to Chandler when I was at college, I encountered him again as part of my degree, and have since picked up three more of his books for my own pleasure, enchanted by his exquisite writing style and his cynical, jaded frontman. One thing I will say off the bat though, is that Chandler’s works need a certain level of maturity: like an inverse fine wine, the older you are when you read them the richer they are to the pallet. Or, at least, that was my own experience. They can be raw, they can be shocking and they contain a fair amount of scandal too, but they are in all respects, I’ll say it again, exquisite. No-one has ever, ever, wrote metaphors like Chandler, and doubtless anyone ever will. Hard-core and always just the shy side of serious, I implore any reader to at least give one of his works a go (it’ll definitely be worth it), and to all prospective writers – Chandler is the undisputed king of one-liners and absolutely on-point conservative writing. True his novels are undoubtedly ‘male’ works with fem-fatals aplenty (we women are just as cunning – and sometimes more – than the men, and we tote guns with far more style *wink*) but, honestly, they can be read and adored by anyone, even a sixteen-year old teenager who had never encountered this type of literature before. Also, ironically, in both instances where I studied Chandler academically, I was taught by women. I’ll let you read from that whatever you may.
So what is it, exactly, that makes Chandler so special? We can boil it down to two overarching points, and the first, absolutely, has to be his style. With his works largely set in 1940s Los Angeles, there is a haunting, exhilarating zeitgeist in the way that they are written. Police play dirty, smoking is at the height of fashion, and everyone and his grandmother owns a gun. Chandler’s is a world characterised by corruption, violence and abuses of power by authority figures, where acceptable society is merely a veneer to hide the real money-making engine: crime. And it is delicious! Murder and sin wash the pages with ink, and all is told with a suave, streetwise cool, and a wisecrack at every turn. If there was ever equation for good writing, then Chandler cracked it, reworked it and made it his own.
‘From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.’ – The High Window.
The second thing which sets Chandler apart is, undeniably, his detective. Less precocious than Holmes, and harder than either Marple or Poirot, Marlowe nevertheless broke the mould by being more endemically real and human than any other model before him. In Chandler’s own words of what a detective should be, Marlowe fits the bill exactly. He is ‘a common man and yet an unusual man […] a man of honour, 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.’ In the dirty glamour of an unscrupulous city, Marlowe solves crimes for enough money to pay the bills, and liaises with the very worst aspects of society until he is slowly worn away by them. His life is inelegant, often thankless and lonely; and he is a man of pride and a poor man besides, with a tongue that talks him quicker into trouble than out of it. Yet it is his commonality, his fine and flawed humanity, which allows him to go among common people and solve their crimes – or sometimes not – and the bare simplicity of this fact has an elegance all of its own. Marlowe reflects a common human condition, which is perhaps even more poignant today: to look around and see the world how it really is, and be thoroughly dissatisfied with it.
Written before the dawn of the true ‘psychological character,’ Marlowe nevertheless is affected by what he sees and experiences, and it is his intrinsic reactions which give Chandler’s novels their multiples richness. This is perhaps the strongest reason why I say Chandler should be approached with maturity: at sixteen, Marlowe seemed to me a man who could handle anything with a prime shot and some verbal give and take; at twenty-three, he read truer to what he is – a man honour-bound to do a job which will eventually destroy him. Chandler is not a writer who spells things out, if anything I would call him more of an impressionist, in the sense that Marlowe’s emotions are oftener evoked than described, usually in some of the most beautifully written and poignant prose of the novel.
‘Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again. Even a cop. Even a Maglashan. Nobody has to like me. I just want to get off this frozen star.’ – The Little Sister.
Marlowe is the lone ranger of another era, which has advanced in every other way except human nature. He is Chandler’s stellar creation, and a detective who deserves his rightful place alongside Holmes and Marple and Poirot as something different from them but in no way inferior.
Chandler set out to introduce realism back into literature, and the praise that his novels still receive, even today, says that he succeeded. He wanted to see crime solved by an average man-of-the-streets and, finding no model for this vision, created it himself – a lesson for all fellow writers. So read him for pleasure, read him for the experience, read him because you don’t know what else to read. Chandler was a writer who wrote with purpose and who was, above all else, a true master of his craft.
- Works referred to in this post include: ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (essay), The High Window and The Little Sister. No copyright intended.