More Grappling With Raymond Chandler

I wanted to extend a big thanks to all the legionairres who weighed in the merits and demerits of Raymond Chandler. I just wanted to highlight a few really interesting responses:

[T]he main thing about Chandler is the dialog, which comes out of Hammet and the hard boiled detective glossies of the '20's. Another guy who approached that and who was also very successful was Erle Stanley Gardner (best known for Perry Mason.) The snappy dialog carried forward in a lot of ways. The trump line in many movies "Your diplomatic immunity is revoked" etc., comes from this detective genre. (An in between writer who developed it after WW2 was of course Mickey Spillane.) 

The American anti-hero on a quest also is rooted here, I don't see it before in our literature but would welcome correction or elaboration. I think Hammett, Chandler, and Gardner are your best bets to evoke the West Coast in the '20's and '30's. And, again, the traditional novelistic categories of description and characterization are both subordinated to intricate plots and dialog. For reading, these can be fun but Chandler was always notorious for complexity. My preference is for the film noir genre that flows out of it. If you want to read, Hammett is the guy. 

WRT to "Big Sleep" be aware that there are actually two versions of the Bogart/Bacall film. The original version had Bacall upstaged by Dorothy Malone and the client's daughter, several scenes were re-shot and additional Bacall footage was put in. Unless you are devoted to the B-B romance, the original is better and more coherent. There is a little obvious race baiting of a white character also. 

 There are also three versions of "Maltese Falcon": the one we all know (1941), an original with Cortez as Sam Spade (not so good but with an astounding juxtaposition shot (dialectical montage, in the jargon) involving a record player during a seduction scene), and a truly hideous remake with Bette Davis and Warren William (many plot details changed, Greenstreet character made into a woman, falcon changed into a horn, etc.) entitled "Satan Met a Lady." 

 Now all you have to do is get a snap brim fedora.


You should approach The Big Sleep in sort of the same way you approach Ulysses; read it for the mood, don't worry too much about making sense. See, the thing about Chandler is that his stories aren't actually stories; they're atmosphere pieces. The plots often don't make sense (The Big Sleep itself contains the most famous example of Chandler's nonsensical plotting, but I can't explain it without giving too much away), but they're very good at conveying the atmosphere he wants.

And one more:

Here's the difference between Chandler and his many imitators: Marlowe is genuinely in moral jeopardy. If you read The Big Sleep as a story of Marlowe trying to solve a mystery, you come at at it wrong. The actual story is Marlowe trying to keep his head above water. Marlowe is resigned to the fact that he will never be entirely clean by his own standards. He's been wading in a moral swamp so long that he's started to make a living out of it. He's just trying to keep the muck out of his mouth. Look at those smart-ass comments again, especially the ones in the narration, and you'll see how much contempt and dislike Marlowe has for himself. 

If I could sum up Chandler's vision of LA in one phrase, it would be "the beauty of the fallen world." If I could sum up Marlowe in one phrase it would be, "A man's last stand against his own corruption." That plot starts in the very first scene of The Big Sleep, as Marlowe stands in the domestic jungle of that greenhouse, face to face with another man who long ago lost his battle against his own corruption and who has retained just enough of his integrity to know how badly he's lost. Most "Chandleresque" private eyes have faux "rough around the edges" trappings but never actually wrestle with any genuine temptation. 

Their adherence to their good-guy code is never at risk. (Or, in James Ellroy, they long since lost so much of their integrity that they can't get their moral compass to point even north by northwest. No moral jeopardy there either, because they're past hope.) Marlowe is trying to hang on to just enough self-respect to live with himself, and it's not at all clear he'll manage.

For the record I've begun enjoying the book, though I don't quite know why. More on that as I dig further in. I want to make a platform suggestion for people just going to Chandler--read it both in book form and e-reader. I find books superior for keeping track of my journey, for knowing exactly how far I've traveled. E-readers can "tell" you, but the physical page allows you to feel the journey.

But the kindle app on my iPad is indispensable with a book like this. Chandler doesn't spend much time delineating characters and it's easy to quickly lose track of who is who. The search function on your e-reader is godsend. I just scroll back to the first time I read the person's name and keep rolling.

More to come.