The most ass-kickin' writer to come along
in a decade!’


-The NY Times

Glad to see you're getting it right.!’

-Karl Rove

 

 

Raymond Chandler: An Appreciation

Let me start with this 'first principle' of Chandler's, about which I think most everyone can both agree: "Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds."

Chandler was the perfect example of this. He took a genre (detective fiction) that most seemed to find inherently lacking in vitality and importance and, through his genius, transformed it into one which is still alive today, although there hasn't been anyone since Chandler who has approached his achievement. He was cynical and lyrical, humorous and dead serious. I've collected several examples of Chandler's writing that I hope you'll appreciate.

Among other things, Raymond Chandler is the best writer I've ever encountered at describing women's hats. Yes, women's hats. Here are a few examples:
About one Anne Riordan, in "Farewell, My Lovely," Chandler writes: "Her hair by daylight was pure auburn and on it she wore a hat with a crown the size of a whiskey glass and a brim you could have wrapped the week's laundry in."
And here's Chandler on Vivian Regan, in "The Big Sleep": "She wore brownish speckled tweeds, a mannish shirt and tie, hand-carved walking shoes. Her stockings were just as sheer as the day before, but she wasn't showing as much of her legs. Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter."

And in "The Little Sister," he has this to say about a young woman named Orfamay Quest: "[N]obody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth. She was a small, neat, rather prissy-looking girl with primly smooth brown hair and rimless glasses. She was wearing a brown tailor-made and from a strap over her shoulder hung one of those awkward-looking square bags that make you think of a Sister of Mercy taking first aid to the wounded. On the smooth brown hair was a hat that had been taken from its mother too young."

Chandler was witty and incisive when writing about other writers and critics. One of his best passages I'll pass along to you here: "The great critics, of whom there are piteously few, build a home for truth. [The critic] must create a reasonable world into which his reader may enter blindfold and feel his way to the chair by the fire without barking his shins on the unexpected dust mop. The barbed phrase, the sedulously rare word, the highbrow affectation of style — these are amusing, but useless." The respect and admiration I have for Chandler's work are in no small part the result of his being a veritable fountain of gems such as these.
I'll also pass along several "takes" from "The Raymond Chandler Papers," a collection of (primarily) Chandler's letters, many of which are truly marvelous, and which taken together provide a glimpse into the mind and heart of one of the really fine writers of our century, an intelligent, feisty, independent, brilliant guy.

"There is a certain quality indispensable to writing, from my point of view, which I call magic, but which could be called by other names. It is a sort of vital force. So I hate studied writing, the kind of thing that stands off and admires itself. I suppose I was a born improviser, I calculate nothing in advance, and I believe that whatever one may have done in the past, one always starts from scratch."

"God, what a fascinating document could be put together about Neglected Authors . . . there's Aaron Klopstein. Who ever heard of him? I don't suppose you have. He committed suicide at the age of 33 in Greenwich Village by shooting himself with an Amazonian blow gun, having published two novels entitled 'Once More the Cicatrice' and 'The Sea Gull has no Friends,' two volumes of poetry, 'The Hydraulic Face Lift' and 'Cat Hairs in the Custard,' one book of short stories called 'Twenty Inches of Monkey,' and a book of critical essays entitled 'Shakespeare in Baby Talk.'"

"For myself, I am convinced that if there is any virtue in our art, and there may be none at all, it does not lie in its resemblance to something that is now traditional, but which was not traditional when it was first produced. If we have stylists, they are not people like Osbert Sitwell -- Edwardians who stayed up too late; nor are they pseudo-poet dramatists like T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry; nor bloodless intellectuals who sit just at the edge of the lamplight and dissect everything to nothing in dry little voices that convey little more than the accents of boredom and extreme disillusion."

About Graham Greene's 'The Heart of the Matter': "It has everything in it that makes literature except verve, wit, gusto, music and magic."

About Jean-Paul Sartre: "God, but this fellow could stand a good pruning. He writes superbly at times, but he never knows where to stop."

"My argument is and always has been merely that there is no such thing as serious literature, that the survival of Puritanism in the American mind makes all but the most literate people incapable of thinking of literature without reference to what they call significance, and that most of this so-called serious literature or fiction is the most transient stuff in the world; the moment its message is dated, damn quick, it is dead stuff."

"How do you tell a man to go away in hard language? . . . Give me the classic expression actually used by [Chicago gangster] Spike O'Donnel. What he said was: 'Be missing.'"

"Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It's a scream. It's written like this: 'I checked out with K19 on Adabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn't enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn't enough. He was right.'
"They pay brisk money for this crap?"

That long paragraph is actually so well done that even though Chandler is poking mildly malicious fun at the genre, it's still good writing. He somehow manages to generate a suspenseful noir situation using gobbledygook for a vocabulary.
When writing about British crime fiction, Chandler complains that every English detective story involves "the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the 'Bell Song' from Lakme in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingenue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence the next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flatfeet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on. . . . The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers."

And finally, I'll offer another bit of Chandler here, this from his last novel "Playback." Chandler's wife had died a few years earlier, and Chandler himself would die shortly after he completed this book. It expresses, in stirringly eloquent terms, Chandler's fears about the afterlife. It is spoken by an 80-year-old gentleman whom Philip Marlowe meets in the lobby of the hotel in which his client is staying:

"There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don't think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I'm a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man's religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact. On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man's finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world — how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be somehow made reasonable. Don't tell me that honor is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behavior pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn't have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right? And that God's days are very very long?"

I hope that his will give you a glimpse into Chandler's mind and soul. His work is really beyond compare.

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