50th Anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s Death

On this day fifty years ago Raymond Chandler died. It’s made me think about why he we still find him so fascinating and so I’ve put together this post, which are loosely associated thoughts about Chandler. I like to think of them as a first draft and look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

Chandler was a writer of real power and originality with an unforgettable turn of phrase, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” (Farewell, My Lovely). He was first and foremost a stylist. He had an enduring love of language that was nourished by a Classical education in Britain in the early twentieth century but that did not fully blossom until the 1930s when he found himself writing mystery stories for Pulp magazines like Black Mask. The stylistic nature of these stories was necessarily unforgiving but Chandler liked to sneak something into them when he could. In 1938 he decided to turn two of the stories, Killer in the Rain and The Curtain, into a novel that would be called The Big Sleep and Philip Marlowe was introduced to the world:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display hankerchief, black brouges, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everthing the well-dressed private detective ought to be. (The Big Sleep)

The novel gave him the space to play with language in the way he wanted to and he set about doing just that, riffing on LA and its citizens in a way that no-one had done before and few people have come close to since:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slep the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. (The Big Sleep)

Chandler’s writing method helped him. He used to tear yellow sheet of legal paper in half, feed these short sheets into his typewriter and write away, keeping the lines three spaces apart so that each sheet could fit around 12 lines on each page. He always made sure that he got “a little bit of magic” on each of these sheets in the form of an interesting phrase or description. Later, he would number these sheets and re-order them to get the best effect. Plotting was not his strong point and he would often find himself trying to shoe-horn a scene into a novel that he liked too much to abandon but which did not fit in with the plot he had hastily tacked on at the end. It was a method that allowed him to write clear and evocative prose and invent the style that we love.

Chandler’s facility with words and his sharp eye for detail made him an accute observer of LA and its inhabitants and his novels are populated with odd, unforgettable characters that are hard to shake off. Harry Jones in The Big Sleep is a small-time crook, a grifter who worked on grog-smuggling runs during prohibition, but Chandler  makes us like him ” ‘That a kind of dirty crack, brother,’ he said with something that was near enough to dignity to make me stare at him…He puffed evenly and stared at me level eyed, a funny little hard guy I could have thrown from home plate to second base. A small man in a big man’s world. There was something I liked about him.” Then there’s Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely, a two time murderer and a man that Marlowe “strangely liked” – these are men that in another world, through the eyes of a different writer, we would dislike. But Chandler makes us feel for them, he makes them frail, he makes them hurt – he makes them human:

He [Malloy] didn’t look at me at all. He looked at Mrs Lewin Lockridge Grayle. He leaned forward and his mouth smiled at her and he spoke to her softly

‘I thought I knew the voice,’ he said. ‘I listened to that voice for eight years – all I could remember of it. I kind of liked your hair red, though. Hiya, babe. Long time no see,’

She turned the gun.

‘Get away from me, you son of a bitch,’ she said…she shot him five times in the stomach…He was still alive, but after five in the stomach even a Moose Malloy doesn’t live very long…

He was still on his knees and still trying to get up when the fast wagon got there. It took four men to get him on the stretcher.

‘He has a slight chance…’

‘He wouldn’t want it,’ I said

He didn’t. He died in the night. (Farewell, my Lovely)

In the end though, the lasting gift that Chandler gave us is Philip Marlowe himself. A man that we admire and pity simultaneously. We admire him for his nobility, his willingness to do the right thing even though he knows it is bad for Philip Marlowe, like when he returns to the scene of Anson’s murder in The High Window, when everything in his body is telling him not to. Or when he drives home Merle at the end of that novel saving her from Mrs Murdock. And yet we have to pity Marlowe too. He is a lonely man, with nothing more than his chessmen and pipe for company. He has to keep himself separate from the world to remain a true detective, a man in the world but not of it. But, as Chandler knew, this leaves him an isolated figure:

…a fellow of Marlowe’s type shouldn’t get married, because he is a lonely man, a poor man, a dangerous man, and yet a sympathetic man…I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated. (Letter to Maurice Guiness, 21st February 1959)

And in the end this is sad circumstance for a good man, a man who deserves something better. We read about Marlowe and his adventures and are left with a feeling of sadness for a man we strangely like:

On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and ahd a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again. (The Big Sleep)

And that, for me at least, is one of the Chandler’s great strengths and it is one of several reasons that his novels will keep being read for the next fifty years.


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