More Grappling With Raymond Chandler

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Continuing our conversation, I should point out why I even find Chandler worth grappling with, in the first place. I think plotting—keeping a story moving—is an underappreciated among those who take the novel as an art-form.

I read The Great Gatsby in one day. Doctorow is my favorite novelist and I rarely feel like I'm trudging my way through. Some great books need to be worked at—Moby Dick comes to mind. But I've never been convinced that this is to their credit. I've now read As I Lay Dying and The Sound And The Fury. I learned a lot from both of them. But I wouldn't recommend either to anyone who wasn't a writer.


I suppose this is about taste, and mine gravitates to writers who can, all at once, give me great character, some philosophical meat to chew on, and keep the story moving. Chandler does the latter—and he does something more. He knows how to "hold" a scene.

So here we find Vivian Regan in the process of cleaning out Eddie Mars' gambling joint. We pick up the scene with Mars coming in to cover Regan's bet:

Eddie Mars said gravely: "If you're not playing any more, you must let me send someone home with you."

The girl flushed. Her cheekbones stood out white in her face. Then she laughed off-key. She said bitterly: "One more play, Eddie. Everything I have on the red. I like red. It's the colour of blood."

Eddie Mars smiled faintly, then nodded and reached into his inner breast pocket. He drew out a large wallet with gold corners and tossed it carelessly along the table to the croupier. "Cover the bet in even thousands," he said, "if no one objects to this turn of the wheel being just for the lady."

No one objected. Vivian Regan leaned down ands pushed all her winnings savagely with both hands on to the large red diamond in the layout.

The croupier leaned over the table without haste. He counted and stacked her money and chips, placed all but a few chips and bills in a neat pile and pushed the rest back off the layout with his rake. He opened Eddie Mars's wallet and drew out two flat packets of thousand-dollar bills. He broke one, counted six bills out, added them to the unbroken packet, put the four loose bills in the wallet and laid it aside as carelessly as if it had been a packet of matches. Eddie Mars didn't touch the wallet.

Nobody moved except the croupier. He spun the wheel left-handed and sent the ivory-coloured ball skittering along the upper edge with a casual flick of his wrist. Then he drew his hands back and folded his arms.

Vivian's lips parted slowly until her teeth caught and glittered like knives. The ball drifted lazily down the slope of the wheel and bounced on the chromium ridges above the numbers. After a long time and then very suddenly motion left it with a dry click. The wheel slowed, carrying the ball around with it. The croupier didn't unfold his arms until the wheel had entirely ceased to revolve.

The red wins," he said formally, without interest. The little ivory-coloured ball lay in Red 25, the third number from the Double Zero. Vivian Regan put her head back and laughed triumphantly.

The croupier lifted his rake and slowly pushed the stack of million-dollar bills across the layout, added them to the stake, pushed everything slowly out of the field of play.

Eddie Mars smiled, put his wallet back in his pocket, turned on his heel and left the room through the door in the panelling.

I could have done without the remark about red being the color of blood. Often I feel like Chandler is going for the bomb, when what he really needs is first down. But the drive as a whole is pretty gripping. This is probably my favorite scene in the book—just as poetry. The details feel just right. They aren't piled on to make you believe. Chandler believes for you. 

I find Chandler most gripping at his simplest. I'm reading a book reparations right now. Farewell My Lovely is next.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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