• Print

The Simple Art of Murder

Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler; drawing by David Levine

1.

The powerful appeal of certain forms of “genre” stems from an apparent simplicity that, in the hands of inspired practitioners, rises to a kind of classic purity. There is an element of the parable, the fairy tale, even the ritual, which fuels such brilliant variants of genre as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—a ghost story in the English tradition of which its author spoke with unusual disdain, virtually dismissing it as an inferior work. The abiding appeal of Edgar Allan Poe’s hallucinatory tales of the arabesque and grotesque springs from their fevered, defiant unreality, the boldness with which, in appropriating the well-trodden Gothic tale, in particular the fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann, for his own commercial purposes, Poe jettisoned all semblance of individual psychology and sociological “realism” in the service of another kind of vision. Only in his notebooks, in particular the remarkable prose pieces edited and published as The American Notebooks, is Nathaniel Hawthorne a realist; his novels and short stories are purposefully of the genre of “romance,” ingeniously contrived moral allegories that yield numerous interpretations. In the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne helpfully defines not just the art of the romance but by implication all genre fiction:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

All of Herman Melville’s fiction is a variant of romance in these Hawthornian terms. More subtle and ambiguous is the appropriation of the journal genre by Henry DavidThoreau in Walden, an artfully composed and semi-fictionalized portrait of “Henry David Thoreau” as a hero free of all personal history and identity. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is imagined as a companion to Tom Sawyer, a picaresque boy’s book in which distinctly adult truths are discovered. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a morality play of which William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress is a visual analogue. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, George Orwell’s Animal Farm—all are appropriations of highly entertaining genres in the service of moral or political polemics. George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894) is a unique work in which a Gothic tale emerges fantastically yet somehow convincingly out of what had seemed a realist-memoirist novel. (Trilby happens also to have been the first modern American runaway best seller.)

In such idiosyncratic works, “genre” hardly diminishes a work’s genius but provides its very channel of expression. Consider the minutely observed, psychologically motivated, historically accurate “realist” novel of which Orwell’s Animal Farm is the swift, brilliant, beast-fable equivalent, and you begin to appreciate the extraordinary power genre-writing can possess. In the right circumstances, genre moves swift as a thoroughbred at the starting gate, leaving far behind the good, diligent, faithful beast shackled to a cart heaped with “the real.”

Sigmund Freud’s Studies in Hysteria is the classic model of a popular modern genre, the “case study,” which purports to be a retrospective analysis of some species of pathology in which the physician is the detective and the patient is the victim, the one usually male and the other frequently female, or a male somehow emasculated. Oliver Sacks is the most gifted contemporary practitioner of the genre, and has developed it along lines that deviate considerably from Freud’s. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is subtitled The Confession of a White Widowed Male and the voice of Humbert Humbert is that of the mock-penitent confessing his crimes and claiming moral insight after passion has run its course—in the most revered Augustinian tradition. Each of Nabokov’s novels is at once sui generis and genre-bending: Pale Fire is a tour de force of mad academic scholarship in which footnoted commentary overwhelms its ostensible subject; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Invitation to a Beheading, King, Queen, Knave, Transparent Things are variants of mysteries, as the autobiograpical Speak, Memory is a work of artful self-invention, like Thoreau’s very different Walden, presented as “memoir.” A genre indigenous to American popular literature is the variously named “Gothic,” “horror,” “occult,” or “dark fantasy,” directly descended from Poe, containing such disparate practitioners as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a brilliant feminist reinterpretation of Poe’s “mad” narrator), Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and, in more recent decades, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Crowley, Steven Millhauser, Jonathan Carroll, Thomas Liggoti, Barry N. Malzberg, Kathe Koja, and Joanna Scott, as well as best-selling writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, Peter Straub, and R.L. Stine, whose novels sell tens of millions of copies. This genre divides thematically into two overlapping categories: works in which supernatural forces figure, manifested literally as monsters or symbolically as “compulsions” in presumably normal people, and works in which obsessive sexual predators stalk their victims. The former might be defined as essentially a juvenile mode, the latter its adult equivalent.

Erotic horror is a sub-genre that shades into hard-core pornography in which victims, usually but not exclusively female, are stalked, terrorized, raped, tortured and mutilated, and murdered without end in a grotesque parody of “real life”—the “war of the sexes.” Genitalia are lethal weapons in the one sex, passive and sometimes compliant objects of desire in the other. The turgid, cerebral fantasies of the Marquis de Sade are presumably the classic models for this genre, and the elegantly written The Story of O., by “Pauline Réage,” is its masochists’ bible. In such works the human body is a magic theater of insatiable, cruel experimentation that usually ends in death for the victim. The perpetrator of evil is rarely apprehended or punished.

Bret Easton Ellis would seem to have been parodying this genre in American Psycho, though it was difficult to tell; Paul Theroux would seem to have been deftly exploiting it in Chicago Loop. The lushly overdone vampire sagas of Anne Rice are primarily erotic horror, as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though Victorianchaste on its surface, is erotically charged throughout. Contemporary dark fantasy has become a genre in which erotic relations are explored in vivid, metaphorical terms, frequently against the nightmare backdrop of an implicit curse or apocalyptic doom (the specter of AIDS, unnamed); far from being escapist fiction, a number of these parable-like tales are painfully resonant for our time, collected in anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow bearing such titles as Alien Sex, Off-Limits, Blood is Not Enough, and Little Deaths. (A frequently reprinted practitioner of the genre is Lucy Taylor, whose Unnatural Acts, a gathering of feminist-Sadean excess, is aptly named.) Erotic horror and dark fantasy are the antithesis of the genre known as “romance”—by tradition the most popular and lucrative of all genres, with an exclusively female, uncritical readership.

The genre most indigenous to American literature is the “mystery-detective,” descending directly from Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of ratiocination “The Purloined Letter,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” in which the Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin ingeniously solves mysteries that have stymied ordinary minds. Out of Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” surely one of the world’s most tedious mysteries, has sprung the vast flood of codes, ciphers, secret messages, “clues” that are the stock in trade of the genre, reaching an apogee of the absurd in the crammed and contrived Ellery Queen mysteries of the 1930s. (The clue-crammed mystery is currently enjoying a spectacular resuscitation, however, as a consequence of recent discoveries in forensic science, including DNA tracing; in such adventures, scientific detection has supplanted armchair speculation by amateur sleuths, and the puzzle-solver can as readily be a woman as a man, as in the best-selling murder mysteries of Patricia Cornwell, a former pathologist.) Brilliant variants are Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (in which a blind librarian named “Borges” is the very villain), which pay homage to the genre while transcending it.

Yet more native to America, the “hard-boiled mystery-detective” genre with its realistic, usually urban contemporary settings conforms only partially to Hawthorne’s dictum regarding romance: “It must rigidly subject itself to laws” and “sins unpardonably” if it swerves from “truths of the human heart.” In fact, the genre is a sort of demonic anti-pastoral in which “laws” of probability are continually defied, and its primary truth of the human heart is that men and women, though more frequently women (if they are beautiful), are rotten to the core.

The influence of Raymond Chandler and his acknowledged mentor Dashiell Hammett has been ubiquitous in the genre, a phenomenon of styles, attitude, and atmosphere, the conventions of film noir that have been raised to the point of parody, and beyond, as if reinvented out of sheer belated bravado, by James Ellroy. These noir romances transfer readily to the screen since they are cinematically imagined, so structured that periodic eruptions of action and violence, and not the narrative language surrounding them, form the skeleton of the work. (When in doubt, Chandler breezily advised the writer of such fiction, bring in a man with a gun.) In the British detective mysteries which Chandler scorned, by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others, action and violence are virtually nonexistent, subordinated to genteel puzzle-solving. A corrupt social order, taken for granted in American mystery-detective fiction, is rarely indicted in the conservative British tradition, even in the relatively sophisticated police “procedurals” of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. “Realistic” variants of the genre would have to be official police detective mysteries, for private detectives are rarely involved in authentic crime cases, and would have no access, in contemporary times, to the findings of forensics experts. In recent decades the police procedural has effloresced into an enormously popular sub-genre, worldly wise yet not wholly cynical, crammed with up-to-date information and “colorful” characters; though invariably formulaic in outline, the police procedural can be richly inventive within its perimeters and strongly atmospheric, as in the novels of Joseph Wambaugh (a former policeman), James Lee Burke, and the prolific Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), with their appealing, macho, thoroughly professional detective-protagonists.

2.

Honesty is an art.

—Raymond Chandler,
“The Simple Art of Murder”

While the romance genre, for women, is universally reviled, the mystery-detective genre, so transparently its equivalent for men, has long enjoyed a privileged cult status. What are the secret wishes this genre’s elaborately contrived scenarios fulfill? What are its subterranean assumptions, its blood-beliefs? Who is the solitary hero-savior, bearer of sacred seed that never replicates itself in mere flesh?—for detectives, of course, have no progeny. Raymond Chandler, high priest of his own cult, passionately proclaims:

…Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective…must be such a man. 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 phrase, 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…. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that, in real life, the private detective is the antithesis of Chandler’s romantic icon, likely to be a failed or fired police officer, this bold proclamation, with its echoes of Hemingway, makes one thing clear: the detective is all that other men are not, the proper object of their envy, adulation, and desire. He is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the (male) reader of the genre, as the heroine of romance is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the (female) reader of that genre. He is not a sexual predator, for women often fill him with revulsion, but he is the very essence of virility. It is not so much that his gun suggests a magical phallus but that he himself is the magical phallus, inextinguishable.

Though, as Philip Marlowe the wise-cracker, he declines even the rudiments of personal charm, remaining a sardonic adolescent among disapproving adults, he enjoys a remarkable access to the (scorned) world of wealth, privilege, power, political authority; he is constantly being summoned to the homes of wealthy strangers who plead with him to help them, and he learns the most intimate and sordid secrets of men and women whose elevated social positions, under normal circumstances, would insure that his path never cross theirs. Sometimes, improbably yet wonderfully, he finds himself in a position to offer spontaneous aid to one of their kind, as in the curious opening of The Long Goodbye—“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”

Private investigator, private “eye”: the fantasy figure of Chandler’s detective is not unlike that of an “invisible” man or a supernatural being with fairy-like powers of observation, intuition, mobility, survival. Philip Marlowe is repeatedly “sapped” on the head with blackjacks or gun barrels, shot at, beaten, kicked, choked, drugged, trussed up and left for dead, yet he invariably recovers, and sometimes within the space of a few minutes takes his “dispassionate” revenge on one or another of the caricatured thugs and bit players who populate, like vermin, the Los Angeles/”Bay City” sets of Chandler’s novels:

I giggled and socked him. I laid the coil spring on the side of his head and he stumbled forward. I followed him down to his knees. I hit him twice more. He made a moaning sound. I took the sap out of his limp hand. He whined.

I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face. While he was still groaning I knocked him cold with the sap. (Farewell, My Lovely)

Where in a realistic or “literary” novel there is no expectation that the protagonist, however deserving, will triumph, or even survive, in such genre works there is a tacit contract between writer and reader guaranteeing that the detective will triumph, as the life force itself must triumph.1 In this sense even the “hard-boiled” American detective novel is a British “cozy”—we are given to know that we are in safe hands, we need not fear chaos or the defeat of our deepest desires. The promise of the mystery-detective novel is that its beginning, its very opening statement, is simultaneously its ending, the terror of ambiguity resolved.

In The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe breaks his usual reticence about himself to boast quietly:

I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters.

Philip Marlowe was fired for “insubordination” from a district attorney’s office, but it isn’t clear that he has a law degree; nor does he seem to have trained as a policeman. He has never married because he dislikes “policemen’s wives.” When we first meet him in The Big Sleep (1939), he is thirty-three years old and his fee is twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses; by the time of The Long Goodbye (1953), he is forty-two years old and his fee has risen to forty dollars a day plus expenses. This is a striking, manly man whom women adore, usually in direct proportion to his disdain: poor little druggie rich girl, twenty-year-old Carmen Sternwood of The Big Sleep, introduces herself to him by giggling, “Tall, aren’t you?” and “Handsome too” and “You’re cute,” as she pretends to faint back into his arms, within seconds of their initial meeting, and later so defiles his bachelor bed by waiting for him in it naked that he “tore the bed to pieces savagely”; her older, married, sister Vivian cries, “My God, you big dark handsome brute! I ought to throw a Buick at you.”

Marlowe is repeatedly suggested to be tall, dark, handsome; he is mistaken for a prizefighter; even the chaste, sensible Anne Riordan of Farewell, My Lovely, a journalist and the daughter of a policeman, is painfully smitten with him. The most gorgeous seductress of all the Marlowe adventures, the elusive Velma of Farewell, My Lovely, in her guise as the wife of the wealthy, rather moribund Mr. Grayle, is immediately attracted to him, or gives that flattering impression:

“What’s your name?”

“Phil. What’s yours?”

“Helen. Kiss me.”

She fell softly across my lap and I bent down over her face and began to browse on it. She worked her eyelashes and made butterfly kisses on my cheeks. When I got to her mouth it was half open and burning and her tongue was a darting snake between her teeth.

There is the “dream blond” Eileen Wade of The Long Goodbye, a seemingly steadfast, loyal wife, so beautiful and desirable in Philip Marlowe’s eyes that he can describe her only as “unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as its color”—she too eventually succumbs to hysterical lust, a specifically female frenzy:

When I faced her she was already falling towards me. So I caught her. I damn well had to. She pressed herself hard against me and her hair brushed my face. Her mouth came up to be kissed. She was trembling. Her lips open and her teeth opened and her tongue darted. Then her hands dropped…and the robe she was wearing came open and underneath it she was naked…

“Put me on the bed,” she breathed.

And so on, and on. There are many such instances, but Marlowe always escapes, of course, sacred seed unspilled.

If he is a cult figure of enviable sexual allure, forever driving the labyrinthine streets of Los Angeles in search of what his creator calls, in his most famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” a “hidden truth,” Philip Marlowe is also a “common man or he could not go among common people”; he would seem to be a vessel of American egalitarianism, the very voice of democracy: “He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.” Yet here is a sampling of the words, fairly obscene by contemporary standards and surely repugnant in Chandler’s era, that fall casually and frequently from Philip Marlowe’s lips: “nigger,” “shine,” “fag,” “queen,” “Jewess,” “Mex,” “greaseback,” “wetback,” “Jap.” In this Caucasian-macho landscape, “a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.” Marlowe’s wisecracks are sometimes indistinguishable from ethnic slurs: “[You’re] cute as a Filipino on Saturday night.” A minor character in The High Window is “a big burly Jew with a Hitler mustache and pop eyes.”

Like the Los Angeles smog of which he speaks so knowingly, Marlowe’s misogyny permeates the novels; yet it’s with a supreme lack of self-consciousness that he informs us repeatedly of his aversion for the female: “It’s so hard for women—even nice women—to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.” And, bluntly: “Women make me sick.”

The noir tradition, or cliché, has it that women are evil and disgusting if they are sexual beings; if they are not sexual beings, they scarcely exist. The Caucasian male of a certain macho sensibility is the arbiter of all values, morals. Such males understand one another instinctively; when they meet, their bonding is immediate and unquestioned, sealed with the sacrament of serious drinking,2 like the curious, almost mystical brotherly bonding between Marlowe and the misogynous alcoholic Terry Lennox, the “warhero” kept husband of a rich, promiscuous woman who gets herself shot in the head and her beautiful face battered beyond recognition amid the preposterous pretzel-plot of The Long Goodbye. Marlowe the fastidious homophobe never questions his own infatuation with Lennox, though the reader is likely to be puzzled. The two men understand each other so intuitively that commonplace social rituals are not needed: “We didn’t shake hands. We never did. Englishmen don’t shake hands all the time like Americans and although [Lennox] wasn’t English he had some of the mannerisms.” The profile of the ideal American-Caucasian male turns out to be, upon closer examination, that of an English-Caucasian male. Can it be that Marlowe, the common man, is really a frightful snob? Misogynist, racist, homophobe, something of an anti-Semite?

3.

A writer’s worst nightmare is to envision his life’s work out of print, on the brink of oblivion; a writer’s second-worst nightmare is to envision his life’s work reprinted in its virtual entirety, in one or two dense, dispiriting volumes, early and inferior and miscellaneous work jammed together with “major” work. Raymond Chandler is the first popular genre writer to be canonized by the Library of America, reprinted in the uniformly presented, “authoritative” series that includes our great American classics, and then some (not just Jack London’s novels, for instance, but his dogged social commentary; not just Henry James’s fiction, but his voluminous reviews, essays, travel sketches, and musings).

The imprimatur of the Library of America is at once immortalizing and embalming; in Chandler’s case, there is something ludicrous about the very packaging of his mystery-detective novels in such a scholarly format, yearning as they do for separate publication, preferably in paperback, with suitable melodramatic-romantic covers. Footnotes! The gravely scholarly editing of “texts” originally published in Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction, and dismissed by their creator as “trash”! How Chandler would have laughed, bemused as he was by literary pretension.

I’m just a fellow who jacked up a few pulp novelettes into book form. How could I possibly care a button about the detective story as a form? All I’m looking for is an excuse for certain experiments in dramatic dialogue. To justify them I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either. All I really care about is what Errol Flynn calls “the music,” the lines he has to speak.3

Moreover, the decision of the editors of the Library of America to pack in so much of Chandler’s early, inferior work with his major novels (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye) was not a felicitous one. The thirteen “pulp” stories from the mid-1930s which open Volume One present a challenge for the most sympathetic reader:

“This is a gun, buddy. It goes boom-boom, and guys fall down. Want totry it?”…

“Do that again and I’ll put a slug in your guts, copper. So help me I will.”

—from “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”

Steps sounded on the walk.

A harsh voice rasped: “Everybody out! Mitts in the air!”

—from “Smart-Aleck Kill”

Repeatedly the terms “shamus,” “sleuth,” “gumshoe” are used, by caricatured thugs, villains, and “coppers,” as if the very genre of the mystery-detective were played out, in 1935, before Chandler began his career as a novelist. Perishable pulp paper may have been ideal for these cliché-ridden pulp stories of which the Library of America includes a staggering 585 pages.

How much better to begin with The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first substantial work of fiction. One is tempted to describe it as his first mature work—but in fact Chandler was forty-five when he sold his first pulp story, and fifty-one when The Big Sleep was published to enthusiastic reviews and encouraging sales in both the United States and England. Though the novel, like other novels of Chandler’s, was partly “cannibalized” (Chandler’s term) from the early stories, the language Chandler invented for it, the “voice” of Philip Marlowe, strikes an entirely different note. This is noir landscape, and, yes, crudely caricatured females will appear, but the prose rises to heights of unself-conscious eloquence, and we realize with a jolt of excitement that we are in the presence of not a mere action tale teller, but a stylist, a writer with a vision. The wish-fulfillment fantasy that fuels the mystery-detective genre is the wish to penetrate facades, to know secrets forbidden to ordinary mortals, and the private “eye” takes us to such places and describes what he/we see in such a way that the “seeing” is both information and sensation:

The path took us along to the side of [Mr. Sternwood’s] greenhouse and the butler opened a door for me and stood aside. It opened into a sort of vestibule that was about as warm as a slow oven. He came in after me, shut the outer door, opened an inner door and we went through that. Then it was really hot. The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.

With the exception of Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s major novels are distinguished by striking initial scenes. The very reader who has vowed never to squander time on a mystery-detective novel again, having swallowed the increasingly convoluted and improbable twists of plot of a previous mystery-detective novel, is nonetheless drawn into a new adventure, captivated by Chandler’s seductive prose. Before the absurdities and longeurs of plot explication, a sense of mystery, of romantic yearning! The High Window, with its opening shot of the Murdock house in Pasadena and its reiterated images of windows from which terror-struck men fall, or are pushed; The Lady in the Lake, which begins with Marlowe entering a richly atmospheric office building (so like Edward Hopper’s paintings of melancholy, sepia-toned offices) and ends with images of a drowned woman floating in a lake and a man’s broken body in a smashed car deep in a canyon; The Little Sister, which begins with a close-up of Marlowe’s own office, into which evil comes in the least likely “little-sister” guise; The Long Goodbye, with its romantic evocation of a shadow-brother of Marlowe’s amid a glitzy Los Angeles night life—these brilliant if brief flights are touchstones of Chandler’s talent, even as the novels that encase them are invariably disappointing, clogged with unwieldy incidents, unassimilated emotions, puppetry in place of characterization. Farewell, My Lovely, despite its inspired title, is a wretched novel until the eighth chapter, at which, mysteriously, yet in true erratic Chandleresque style, it springs into life, acquiring an intelligence, a perspective, even a measure of depth. Chandler’s “experiments in dramatic dialogue” have an air of the hit or miss about them; some of his chapters read as if unedited.

The author, who boasted of having had a classical education (at Dulwich College, England), was perhaps bored with the exigencies of “plot” required of melodrama; in any case, he was not a gifted craftsman, yoking characters together by sheer force of coincidence, not by way of the organic, carefully imagined plot-webs of his younger and in some ways more gifted contemporary Ross MacDonald (see The Chill, The Goodbye Look, The Moving Target). In his “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story,” Chandler argues defensively, “The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing.” (Has Chandler not read Dickens—the brilliantly riddlesome The Mystery of Edwin Drood? And what of the ingenious plot of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a “detective” story of a unique kind?) As Chandler practiced it, the mystery-detective story is an admittedly second-rate art. The tangled trails Marlowe follows, replete with false leads, switchbacks, dead ends, begin to fade immediately after the mysteries are “solved,” like emotionally charged, confusing dreams after the sleeper has awakened. In this genre more than in any other, anticipation is all; revelation, virtually nothing.

What is most appealing about Chandler is his characteristic tone, which is that of the bemused, neutral observer. Marlowe’s is the poet’s—or the misanthrope comic’s—eye for the precise metaphor, packing information in a figure of speech, an aphorism or a oneliner, a wisecrack. Who but Marlowe would note that a disingenuous woman client pushes his meager retainer in bills across his desk top “very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten”? Who but Marlowe would observe of a blowsy middleaged woman that her voice “dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed” or that “suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully”? Sometimes the similes, the forced wit, veer out of control and Marlowe seems to be parodying Chandler’s very “music”: “I got up on my feet. I was as dizzy as a dervish, as weak as a worn-out washer, as low as a badger’s belly, as timid as a titmouse, and as unlikely to succeed as a ballet dancer with a wooden leg.”

Classic Marlowe one-liners spin off the page with apparent ease, though surely planted in the texts the way Emily Dickinson’s brilliant phrases were planted in her poems and letters: “She was as cute as a washtub:” “…He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” “You boys are as cute as a couple of lost golf balls.” “[He] had hair the color of the inside of a sardine can.” Typically hung-over, Marlowe notes of himself in the midst of a vexing adventure, “I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string…. Inside my head thoughts stuck together like flies on flypaper…. An hour crawled by like a sick cockroach.” Unsurprisingly, Marlowe’s taste in music is conservative: “I was…listening to Khachaturyan working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it.” Like his taste in women:

A girl in a white sharkskin suit and a luscious figure…wobbled her bottom over to a small white table and sat down beside a lumberjack in white drill pants and dark glasses…. He reached over and patted her thigh. She opened a mouth like a firebucket and laughed. That terminated my interest in her. I couldn’t hear the laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed.

Failed irony is mere sarcasm; sarcasm frequently juvenile insult. Chandler works this vein fairly consistently through his short stories and novels, assuming a like-minded sexual disgust in his (male) readers.

At other times, Chandler allows Marlowe a more intellectual, occasionally lyric sensibility. The detective observes of a suspicious character, “[His story] seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact”—an observation that, considering Chandler’s snarled plots, is a comic understatement. There is a shamelessly nostalgic, sentimental ode to bars in The Long Goodbye, too lengthy to quote here; even longer and more rhapsodic is an ode to blondes beginning “There are blondes and blondes,” cleverly setting the scene for the “dream-girl” Eileen Wade, to whom Marlowe will feel so gallant an attraction. From time to time Marlowe drops his cynicism entirely and speaks in what is surely his creator’s unmediated voice:

I used to like this town…. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills…. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful…. People used to sleep out on porches.

Except for bouts of heavy drinking, suicidal depression, and an occasional mental crisis, Raymond Chandler’s life bore little resemblance to the fantastical noir world of his imagination. He seems to have felt self-conscious, even apologetic for his “diffident” personality, in contrast to the heroic Marlowe—that “simple alcoholic vulgarian” with “as much social conscience as a horse.” He was born in 1888 in Chicago and after his alcoholic father abandoned the family, he and his mother lived in various cities in the United States and England, where Chandler was educated. In 1918, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, was sent to France, where he fought in the trenches (“Once you have had to lead a platoon into direct machine-gun fire, nothing is ever the same again”), and was wounded and discharged with the rank of acting sergeant. Like many writers, Chandler seems to have been unsuited for any other career, having tried, in a desultory fashion, journalism and business (bookkeeping, auditing). Unmarried, he lived with his mother until 1924; he was thirty-six when she died of cancer, and immediately married a woman named Cissy Pascal, who was fifty-four years old.

His life with Cissy was itinerant and disorganized, marked by severe alcoholism and erratic behavior on Chandler’s part. He seems to have been compulsively unfaithful to her, at least initially, but after her death in 1954 he broke down completely. “For thirty years, ten months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at,” Chandler wrote to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, shortly before attempting suicide. Chandler’s mood swings, self-loathing, and the sheer dull doggedness of his alcoholism suggest Wade, the best-selling novelist of The Long Goodbye, whom Marlowe is hired to protect and who is finally murdered by the very “dreamgirl” Eileen when, in effect, Marlowe is looking the other way. Chandler was a chronic drunk yet, like his creation Marlowe, he persevered for a remarkably long time, living to the age of seventy-one, writing virtually to the end, and on his very deathbed proposing to Helga Greene, his literary agent. (Sentimentally, or shrewdly, Greene accepted.)

In addition to the pulp stories and the major novels, the Library of America volumes contain Chandler’s last, not very inspired novel. Playback (1958), written when his store of one-liners and similes had been depleted; the screenplay for the celebrated noir film Double Indemnity (1944), adapted from the bare-bones novella by James M. Cain in collaboration with Billy Wilder (“an agonizing experience,” Chandler recollected), which was nominated for an Academy Award; several provocative essays, of which the rueful “Writers in Hollywood” is as timely today as when it was written decades ago;4 and a selection of letters written fairly late in Chandler’s life, after 1945. The chronology of Chandler’s life and notes provided by Frank MacShane, the leading Chandler biographer and scholar, are brief but helpful.

What is badly needed for the edition is an introductory essay of some depth, an overview of the mystery-detective genre and an assessment of Chandler’s seminal place in it, and, still more, a balanced assessment of Chandler’s significance, if any, in American literature. Chandler’s use of Hemingway (whom he rather gracelessly parodies in Farewell, My Lovely) might well be investigated. The phenomenon of Raymond Chandler raises an interesting question: Can one be a “major” figure in a “minor” field?—a “great” writer in a genre in which there is very little competition for “greatness”?5 There has always seemed an element of special pleading in Chandler criticism, as if the flaws and infelicities in his novels were somehow not relevant. Is the canonization of Chandler by the Library of America a sentimental gesture, a quirky misstep? Or is this decision to extend the definition of “American classic” to include a practitioner of the “hard-boiled mystery-detective” school an imaginative one, opening possibilities for the publication of other popular, much-adored writers who have excelled in their respective genres? H.P. Lovecraft (“Gothic horror”), Ray Bradbury (“fantasy,” “science fiction”), Ayn Rand (“prophecy,” “romance”) come immediately to mind.

In a letter of January 7, 1945, to a literary associate, Chandler remarked.

All I wanted when I began was to play with a fascinating new language, and trying, without anybody noticing it, to see what it would do as a means of expression which might remain on the level of unintellectual thinking and yet acquire the power to say things which are usually only said with a literary air. I didn’t really care a hell of a lot what kind of story I wrote; I wrote melodrama because when I looked around me it was the only kind of writing I saw that was relatively honest…

One would not know from this disingenuous avowal that Chandler’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries were, among others, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Jean Toomer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams. Melodrama is not an “honest” mode of fiction though, to give Chandler his due, he may have thought so.

  1. 1

    How unexpected, then, that the private investigator Walter Downs, of Cornell Woolrich’s Waltz Into Darkness, is shot and killed by his own client midway through the novel. But Downs is not the novel’s hero, only a minor character; the novel’s very flawed hero is the murderer-client. 

  2. 2

    If passages devoted to drinking, and smoking, were removed from Chandler’s oeuvre, as from Hemingway’s, the volumes required for their work would shrink considerably. Like his creator, Philip Marlowe is clearly an alcoholic, though one with superhuman powers of durability. The hard-drinking detective seems to have been a cliché from the start, yet one beloved by Chandler, who might have despaired of characterizing his hero otherwise. By 1949, in Ross MacDonald’s deftly Chandleresque The Moving Target, his private eye Lew Archer declines an offer of a drink from a client: “Not before lunch. I’m the new-type detective.” 

  3. 3

    From a letter to Frederick Lewis Allen, May 7, 1948. 

  4. 4

    “There is no such thing as an art of the screenplay,” Chandler states in “Writers in Hollywood.” Yet, however disappointing his experience as a screenwriter was, Chandler was unusually well served by Hollywood. Two films were made of Farewell, My Lovely (one titled Murder, My Sweet) and of The High Window (titled Time to Kill); The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart, was extremely successful. A CBS radio series The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was broadcast in 1948. Chandler’s collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on the screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train ended with Chandler’s dismissal by Hitchcock in 1950. 

  5. 5

    Of Chandler’s contemporaries, Cornell Woolrich (1903–1968) is a striking, idiosyncratic talent writing in a very different noir vein; less formulaic than Chandler, and more experimental in terms of voice, form, theme. Unlike Chandler, he did not create a series detective with whom readers could identify from book to book. Each of his novels differs significantly from the others: I Married a Dead Man (1948) is a dreamy first-person confession that reads like a fairy tale of fantastic coincidences and improbable episodes in an undefined American city; the more ambitious historical suspense novel Waltz Into Darkness (1947) is a lavishly detailed account of a New Orleans businessman’s seduction by a femme fatale con woman who leads him into a life of crime in turn-of-the-century America. Woolrich is the author of Rear Window, Phantom Lady, The Bride Wore Black, and Into the Night; his short stories have titles like “Vampire’s Honeymoon,” “Graves for the Living,” “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” “The Street of Jungle Death.” A master of “psychological horror,” Woolrich too has become a cult figure since his death, though never achieving Chandler’s prominence and commercial success. Like Chandler he was a despondent alcoholic who drank himself to death; he died a recluse.