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Chandler, Raymond

Page history last edited by barry_ergang@... 13 years, 9 months ago

Raymond ChandlerRaymond Thornton Chandler (July 23, 1888 – March 26, 1959) was an American author of crime stories and novels. His influence on modern crime fiction has been immense, particularly in the writing style and attitudes that much of the field has adopted over the last 60 years.


Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1888, but moved to Britain in 1895 when his parents divorced. He entered Dulwich College in 1900, and was naturalised as a British citizen in 1907 in order to take the Civil Service exam. He passed the exam and took a job at the Admiralty, where he worked for just over a year. His first poem was published during this time. After leaving the Civil Service, Chandler worked as a jobbing journalist, and continued to write poetry in the late Romantic style.


Chandler returned to the U.S. in 1912 and trained as a bookkeeper and accountant. In 1917, he enlisted in the Canadian Army and fought in France. After the armistice he moved to Los Angeles and began an affair with an older woman (Cissy Pascal), whom he later married. By 1932 Chandler had attained a vice-presidency at Dabney Oil Syndicate in Signal Hill, California but lost this well-paying job as a result of his alcoholism.


He taught himself to write pulp fiction in an effort to draw an income from his creative talents, and his first story was published in Black Mask in 1933. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.


Chandler worked as a Hollywood screenwriter following the success of his novels, working with Billy Wilder on James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity (1944), and writing his only original screenplay, The Blue Dahlia (1946). Chandler also collaborated, somewhat disastrously, on the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951).


Cissy died in 1954 and Chandler, heartbroken and suffering from a painful nervous disease, turned once again to drink. His writing suffered in quality and quantity, and he attempted suicide in 1955. He died in 1959 of pneumonia.


Chandler's finely wrought prose was widely admired by critics and writers from the high-brow (W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh) to the low-brow (Ian Fleming). Although his swift-moving, hardboiled style was inspired largely by Dashiell Hammett, his use of lyrical similes in this context was quite original. Turns of phrase such as "The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips" (The Lady in the Lake, 1943), have become characteristic of private eye fiction, and he has given his name to the critical term Chandleresque. His style is also the subject of innumerable parodies and pastiches.


Chandler was also a perceptive critic of pulp fiction, and his essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is a standard academic reference.


All of Chandler's novels concern the cases of a Los Angeles investigator named Philip Marlowe, "a nice clean private detective who wouldn't drop cigar ashes on the floor and never carried more than one gun", as Marlowe describes himself on the first page of The High Window. Farewell, My Lovely, The Big Sleep, and The Long Goodbye are arguably his masterpieces. All have been adapted for film, most notably The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Novelist William Faulkner also received a screenwriting credit for this film. The influence of Chandler's screenwriting, as limited as it was, and the adaptation of his novels to screen in the 1940s were important influences on American film noir.


Chandler's short stories typically chronicled the adventures of Philip Marlowe or other down-on-their luck private detectives (John Dalmas, Steve Grayce) or similarly inclined good samaritans (such as Mr. Carmady). Exceptions are the macabre "The Bronze Door" and "English Summer", a self-described Gothic romance set in the English countryside. Interestingly, in the 1950s radio series "The Adventures of Philip Marlowe", which included adaptations from the stories, other protagonists were exchanged for Marlowe (for example, Marlowe for Steve Grayce in the adaptation of "The King in Yellow"). This substitution of the name of the protagonist actually restored the original name used in the earliest published versions of the stories; in fact, it was only in their later republished forms that the name Philip Marlowe was used in any of the stories (with the exception of "The Pencil").


"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness." — The Simple Art of Murder


"Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." - In a letter to his editor regarding a proofreader that had changed Chandler's split infinitives


Mike Grost on Raymond Chandler


I am not as big a Raymond Chandler fan as are many private eye enthusiasts. His work was undeniably influential: imitations of it form the basis of private eye literature, from the 1940's to the 1990's. And it is mandatory for a review of mystery fiction, such as this one, to include a detailed look at his work. But Chandler's work is so gloomy and downbeat that I find it hard to see how people get so much pleasure out of it.


Of all the really famous classical detective writers, Chandler was the weakest at plotting. He recognized this himself. This especially hurts his longer stories and novels, which tend to ramble on without any real logic or coherence. Nor do Chandler's works develop into coherent meanings or overall logical points. In the 1940's, John Dickson Carr slammed Chandler's work for its "poor construction". I think this phrase has two meanings. It simply refers to Chandler's very bad plotting. It also refers to a lack of any overall plan or structure to Chandler's books.


Chandler's great virtue was his brilliant prose style. He was wonderful with the English language. Whether in his vivid descriptions, the clever dialogue, or his meditations on life, Chandler expressed himself beautifully.


Influences on Chandler


People often talk as if Chandler's main influence as a mystery writer were Dashiell Hammett. Hammett certainly was a pioneer writer of the kind of hard boiled detective stories that Chandler wrote, and the ultimate source of much of Chandler's approach. But I suspect a much more immediate predecessor of Chandler was Frederick Nebel. Nebel's Dick Donahue stories were appearing in Black Mask when Chandler published his first story in that magazine in 1933, whereas most of Hammett's fiction was published in the 1920's.


Chandler's gentle satire of detective stories, "Pearls Are a Nuisance" (1939), seems to me to be in part a spoof of Nebel's "Pearls Are Tears" (1933). In addition to the related titles, both stories have a similar plot about a detective who sticks his neck out to get pearls back that were stolen from an elderly, infirm, kind-hearted dowager. Chandler treated a similar theme seriously, as well, in "Mandarin's Jade" (1937), later used as a basis for Farewell, My Lovely (1940).


The basic game plan of Chandler's detective fiction, in addition, seems to me to be closer to Nebel's early Donovan work than to that of any other writer I know in Black Mask history. Both deal with a solitary, very tough detective, who meets a lot of eccentric criminals on mean streets. Both wisecrack, both get involved with a lot of violence. Neither author pays much attention to plotting or surprise solutions to mysteries. In this they are unlike Hammett, who usually had a puzzle plot with an elaborate surprise ending, and clues scattered through the narrative. (Nebel's later fiction would put a greater emphasis on puzzle plotting.)


In both Nebel and Chandler, emphasis is laid on intricate combinations of bad guys all struggling in scene after scene, battling it out with each other and the detective. Neither detective at all plans ahead, unlike Hammett's heroes; the hero just goes along battling it out from episode to episode. Behind both authors stands Carroll John Daly.


Settings and plot elements recur from Nebel's fiction into Chandler's. The nightclub or bar, with a dusty back corridor leading into the manager's office, where a confrontation takes place between hero and manager. The seedy hotel, where shadowing takes place. The heavy drinking of the hero, and detailed accounts of all his meals. The friend who gets in trouble, and needs to be rescued from his difficulties with the law, or criminals. Nebel's big killer Tubba Klem, in "Get a Load of This", seems like a precursor of Moose Molloy in Farewell, My Lovely.


There are stylistic similarities in tone between Nebel and Chandler, as well. Both recount everything that happens, bit by bit. Both use a flat, narrating tone that simply recounts facts.


Chandler was inspired by other authors, too. "Nevada Gas" (1935), a story with a gambler as a hero, and a mob background, seems to be in homage to Paul Cain's Fast One (1932), a novel with a mobster/gambler hero. Fast One was serialized in Black Mask; the novel version was praised by Chandler. The atmosphere and general style of "Nevada Gas" seem to be in imitation of Cain's work.


Chandler's use of a first person detective narrator who makes a lot of wisecracks ultimately comes from Carroll John Daly; Daly's approach influenced such writers as Forrest Rosaire and Robert Leslie Bellem, too.


In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder", Chandler praises the British author of realist police procedural tales, Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts' detective techniques were an influence on such Chandler tales as "The Lady in the Lake", and "No Crime in The Mountains", as is discussed in detail below. Crofts was also a major influence on Dashiell Hammett. It has been fashionable in recent years to state that Black Mask writers were "uniquely American", and had nothing in common with either British authors or the Golden Age mystery novel. An examination of their works does not support this idea. Instead it suggests that Hammett and Chandler were American allies of the Crofts-led realist school.


The First Chandler Short Stories


"Blackmailers Don't Shoot" (1933) is Chandler's first story. It is only one of a handful of his works to emphasize the formal intricate plotting so popular in traditional mysteries. Here the emphasis is not on who done it, but on the ever changing status of the hero and the other characters. At first our hero is presented as nothing more than a common blackmailer, but Chandler uses considerable ingenuity in changing our perception of what side of the law he is on, and what strategy he is following. Further ingenuity is expended on the role of various police, and the legal standing of the hero. The story is sometimes hard to follow, but very interesting and creative.


His follow-up, "Smart Aleck Kill", is lousy; so is "Finger Man", although it was one of Chandler's favorite stories. Next comes "Killer in the Rain", one of Chandler's most sexually shocking stories. This piece, which he later expanded into The Big Sleep, still seems excessively lurid and sleazy even by 1990's standards. It is not one of my favorite Chandler tales, but at least he is not asleep at the switch like his last two tales.


Chandler Finds a Voice: The Key Black Mask Tales


Next comes "Nevada Gas" (1935), start of a genuinely creative period for Chandler. This mob tale has a great opening, and a fairly good follow up. It is somewhat sour in its view of human relations. It starts a series of stories all based on some strong idea or central situation. This is a hallmark of this series.


Next come three tales all dealing with civic corruption. These are all good stories: "Spanish Blood" (1935), "Guns at Cyrano's" (1936), "The Man Who Liked Dogs" (1936). "Guns" is the best of the three, and introduces Chandler's series detective Ted Carmady.


"The Man Who Liked Dogs" was later partially incorporated into Farewell, My Lovely (1940), but reads very well as an independent work. Two situations from the story are repeated in the novel, but most of the plot was not used.


"Guns at Cyrano's" and "The Man Who Liked Dogs" both have unifying themes underlying their plot events. "Guns" is focused heavily on clothes, containing a whole world of unusual fashion statements. "The Man Who Liked Dogs" has a central scene of a sinister drying out clinic for drunks and drug users. As a reformed alcoholic himself, Chandler might have known and feared such places. Its sinister prison like aspects are echoed in the dogs held in pens in the veterinary hospital in the early scenes. Later a trip to a gambling ship creates another location of prison like aspect.


Chandler's first period spurt of outstanding stories concluded with "Pickup On Noon Street" (1936) and "Goldfish" (1936). The mirror apartments effect in "Goldfish" is particularly memorable, as is the story's ending. "Goldfish" marks the end of Chandler's first period.


A Period of Longer but Poorer Tales


Chandler's next story, "The Curtain", has interesting personal relationships in its opening, but otherwise is laboriously violence ridden. One shoot out simply follows another without pause. This, and his next story, "Try The Girl", mark a period of decline.


After 1936 Chandler left Black Mask and switched over to Dime Detective. His pieces grew longer, and he created a new series detective, Johnny Dalmas. His stories seem no longer to be based on a central idea, situation or gimmick, as in his early works, and tend to be just "stories", attempts to tell a tale without any gimmicks or central hooks. Generally speaking, Chandler's work from this era is not as good as his earlier work for Black Mask, although it got progressively better as he approached 1939, the last year of his short story writing period. The best pieces from these years are "Red Wind" (1938), a story with a great opening scene and a good follow up, "Bay City Blues" (1938), a not-bad story with wall to wall wisecracks, and Chandler's best (and least typical) short work, "Pearls are a Nuisance" (1939).


"Pearls" is a comic gem. Written partly as a spoof of detective stories, it is both funny and a good detective story in its own right. The story also shows that Chandler in a happy and humorous mood was a better writer than Chandler in the quasi tragic mode he was always affecting. I wish Chandler had done more pieces like this.


Chandler also wrote an excellent shorter piece for the Saturday Evening Post. "I'll be Waiting" (1939) is Chandler's only story for the slicks, and manages to be an excellent mood piece.


Two interesting minor pieces are "The Lady in the Lake" (1939), which was expanded into the novel, and "Trouble is My Business" (1939). Although this entertaining work is fairly minor, it is hard to resist a story containing a vicious elderly millionaire, a predatory golddigger named Miss Harriet Huntress, a spoiled playboy gambler, a mobster, a murderous chauffeur, a 240 pound female detective and a hit man with a psychotic kid brother. Every hard boiled detective story should have a cast like this. Mary Roberts Rinehart used the line "trouble is my business" in a 1934 short story ("The Inside Story" in her 1937 collection Married People), but it has become famous in association with Raymond Chandler.


In 1939 Chandler largely stopped writing pulp short stories, and turned to novels instead. I don't think any of his early novels are as good as his shorter pieces. Their greatest virtue is their prose style, which reaches its height in the second book, Farewell, My Lovely.


Chandler followed Farewell with a long short story, "No Crime in the Mountains" (1941). This is one his most smoothly written works. Filled with humor and an exciting plot, it is one of his most entertaining tales. It has a rich atmosphere describing the mountain resorts where the crime takes place. Less poetic than Farewell, it is still full of mountains of vividly realized descriptive detail.


"No Crime in the Mountains" seems like a conscious attempt to write a mystery in the style of Freeman Wills Crofts. We know that Chandler was a great admirer of Freeman and Crofts, and his literary model Hammett also seems influenced by Croftsian ideas of realistic detection. The mountain resort setting of "Mountains" is described with the same level of detail one finds in the Backgrounds of the realist school of fiction. So is the Pacific Northwest setting of "Goldfish". "Mountains" has other Croftsian features. There are police detectives. Tracking bad guys from physical trails plays an important part in the detection. And the criminal enterprise in the story (unnamed here to avoid spoiling the tale!) seems especially Croftsian.


"Mountains" also follows Nebel like traditions. The bad guys are up to some criminal enterprise. Innocent bystanders accidentally tumble into it. This leads to their being murdered. The detective tracks them down, figuring out along the way what scheme the criminals are up to.




The Big Sleep (1939)

Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

The High Window (1942)

The Lady in the Lake (1943)

The Little Sister (1949)

The Long Goodbye (1953)

Playback (1958)

Poodle Springs (1959) - incomplete; completed by Robert B. Parker in 1989


Short Stories


Stories Featuring Philip Marlowe


  • Finger Man (1934)
  • Goldfish (1936)
  • Red Wind (1938)
  • Trouble is My Business (1939)
  • The Pencil (1961; originally Marlowe Takes on the Syndicate)


Other Short Stories


  • Blackmailers Don't Shoot (1933)
  • Smart-Aleck Kill (1934)
  • Killer in the Rain (1935)
  • Nevada Gas (1935)
  • Spanish Blood (1935)
  • Guns at Cyrano's (1936)
  • The Man Who Liked Dogs (1936)
  • Pickup on Noon Street (1936; originally published as Noon Street Nemesis)
  • The Curtain (1936)
  • Try the Girl (1937)
  • Mandarin's Jade (1937)
  • The King in Yellow (1938)
  • Bay City Blues (1938)
  • Pearls are a Nuisance (1939)
  • I'll be Waiting (1939)
  • The Bronze Door (1939)
  • No Crime in the Mountains (1941)
  • Professor Bingo's Snuff (1951)
  • English Summer (1976; published posthumously)


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