The Chandler Books


A LITTLE over a year ago two friends, almost simultaneously, suggested I might find a new experience by reading the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler. Being mixed up, by nature of my profession, in literary affairs I thanked them enthusiastically and forgot about the matter. Words to me are beautiful and wonderful things, but there are times when they seem as appetizing as a full meal with wines must seem to a gourmet who has just finished an eight-course dinner. In the end one of my friends, a determined fellow, deposited two Chandler novels in my house — thus strategically undermining any possible form of resistance. I now wish to make a public apology to my friends for my delaying tactics, and should like to record my gratitude to Raymond Chandler for what is, indeed, a new experience in mystery novels.

It is a new experience because Chandler writes not out of habit and not with synthetic materials, as do so many mystery writers, but with an artistry of craftsmanship and a realism that can rank him with many a famous novelist. In his hands, words do become beautiful and wonderful things, operating with economy and precision. What a delight it is to come upon a writer who tosses off a good image on almost every page. Here is an old man whose few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock; a woman who looked as if she would have a hall bedroom accent; cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels; a face that fell a part like a bride’s pie crust; a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window; a voice getting as cool as a cafeteria dinner or one made for talking over an eight party line.

These have been picked at random by leafing through the pages of Chandler’s novels, and I could have found three times as many of equal intensity and caliber if I had taken more time, for Chandler is prodigal in his imagery. If they seem more wisecracks than high-flown literary similes, I will point out that Chandler writes the characteristic American speech and uses characteristic American humor. In doing this he comes closer to literature than other writers who disdain the native brand of thought and language.

If Chandler on the one hand produces a sentence like this: The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut mythroat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax, which has all t he punch and energy of a drink of neat rye whiskey, it must not be thought that everything he writes is so tough and hard. There are descriptive passages that a poet might envy; and phrases such as old men with faces like lost battles or a lawn flowing like a cool green tide around a rock or the surf curled and creamed almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness have a beauty which shows that Chandler cannot be pigeonholed merely as an expert in tough language.

There is more of the tough language in Chandler’s works than of the other kind, but this is because he writes of a world and order of society in which there is Little beauty or serenity. He has a theory about mystery novels which is best explained by one of his own dedications: —

In memory of the time when we were trying to get murder away from the upper classes, the week-end house party and the vicar’s rose-garden, and back to the people who are really good at it.

He believes, and rightly I think, that most murder stories no longer have any relation to real life — that they have become a literary form and convention remote from realism. If we were to judge from most murder stories, murders are most prevalent among the middle and upper classes and as often as not are solved, not by the police, but by private individuals possessed of bulging brains and a vast assortment of strange knowledges. It is manifestly ridiculous. Chandler in his works has returned to that world where murder is a commonplace: the world of racketeers in drugs and liquor, in gambling and prostitution; a world in which police and racketeers and politicians are often mixed up in sub-surface alliances. It is not a bad thing that we should be told about the murky depths of our civilization, that this realism should be Chandler’s subject, for, as we well know, this is indeed the area of American society in which murder is most frequent.

It is strange to meet, a murder-novel writer who attacks his work with the earnest attention and serious social thought which are supposed to be the prerogative of eminent novelists. This is what Chandler does; and, so doing, he has removed his work from the realm of merely conventional entertainment to the point where it becomes a serious study of a certain kind of American society. This quality, and a grim sense of humor allied with an even grimmer sense of realism, — for example, his description of the seedy Fulwidcr Building in The Big Sleep, — plus a superb writing ability, have produced live novels which are worth the attention of more readers than just those alone who are interested in the literature of murder.

I must, as a matter of logic, point out that Mr. Chandler’s theory leads him into a rut. If he sticks to it he will also have to stick to writing about a certain type of society and a certain type of people. In time readers will get tired of this. Worse still, even Mr. Chandler will get tired by the monotony of his literary landscape, and his interest in his own work will diminish — I do indeed fancy I see a dimming of vitality in the last two books. There is a point where a theory may become a hindrance, and I should be glad to see Mr. Chandler trying a few experiments. He might meditate on murdering some of the people he secretly thinks ought to be killed off. A fair amount of good literature has consisted of secret desires and thoughts externalized in words.

Mr. Chandler has done his vigorous best to explode the empty convention behind ordinary murder stories, but he ought not to set up a convention for himself. We who read three or four shockers a week can’t stand monotony in murder.