Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite authors. About every five years, I will re-read all that he wrote, starting with a large collection of his short stories followed by his novels in sequential order. Why, you might ask? He is that good. It’s not his plots that fascinate, although they are interesting enough. Rather it’s the people and the setting of Southern California during the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Rarely are all the threads tied up at the end of one of his novels. Nor does the action follow in a predictable way. In this, Chandler captured something essential about living, the sense of endless sameness just before events, choices, or even fate, upend our lives. Bullets fly, bodies crumple, and then life settles down once again.
In The Big Sleep, the chauffeur is murdered. The body is discovered in a car that’s fished out of the ocean, likely off the Santa Monica Pier. When Howard Hawks was making the film in 1946, he and his crew were puzzled as to who killed the chauffeur. Eventually, they asked the author, who replied that he had no idea. This was not uncharacteristic of Chandler. Characterization and atmosphere were always far more important than the plot. When I examined why I re-read his books so often, thinking it was perhaps a bit of strangeness on my part, I settled on those two elements as the reason. Since I came to that understanding, setting and characterization have formed the bedrock of my writing. Of course, I try and come up with good plots, but it’s the people in them that make me want to write more, and the setting plays as much a part as the characters.
One of my favorite elements of Chandler’s descriptions is that of Philip Marlowe paying for breakfasts at greasy diners with a nickel, or pouring a midnight splash of rye whiskey into the coffee of the slim blonde sitting on the next counter stool as the ocean fog outside the window thickens. To me, it’s pure magic. Life is portrayed in snippets that capture with a few precise details the world of that time, and it really isn’t so bad after all, even during the Great Depression.
Many have tried to emulate the private eye, Philip Marlowe. Chandler’s portrayal is of a man with a deep sense of right and wrong, who dislikes injustice, particularly against those less fortunate. He is more than willing to spit in the eye of the corrupt cops and political flunkies that riddled the municipalities up and down the California coast in those days. He often gets beat up for his troubles, yet he takes on lost causes he shouldn’t. He is attracted to women of questionable character, some rich, some poor, mostly rich. There’s a lot of sleaze, but nobility is always possible in any strata of society and so is depravity.
Chandler portrayed people with uncanny accuracy. The characters come alive. Some are nuts, institutional crazy, yet they run through his novels like veins of color in marble. There is no escape from them. Chandler himself had his own issues. He usually worked well with other writers on his screenplays and received an Oscar nomination more than once. The Blue Dahlia was an exception. He wrote it himself, only there were conflicts between him and Paramount Pictures when it came to the ending. According to the producer, John Houseman, Chandler refused to finish the script unless he could drink to his heart’s content and had around-the-clock secretaries and drivers. Houseman agreed, and the script was completed.
After the death of Chandler’s wife in 1954, he grew increasingly depressed. Alcohol became his constant companion. In 1955, he attempted suicide. He died in 1959. His epitaph reads, “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts”, a line from The Big Sleep.
The man wrote exceptional dialogue and brilliant prose. He was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century, up there with Miller, Steinbeck, and Hemmingway.