One hundred twenty four years ago today, Raymond Chandler was born. He would go on to change the face of American fiction. On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, we reflected on his literary legacy. Originally published March 2009.
Fifty years ago this month, one the most influential writers of the 20th century was buried in a potter’s field at the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, California. Unpublished until age forty-five and less than prolific thereafter, his work consisted of seven novels, a couple dozen short stories and a handful of screenplays. He’d had some commercial success, was admired by fellow authors if not critics, but never got the respect he felt he was due. A chronic alcoholic, he was unmarried at the time of his death, childless, isolated and lonely. Seventeen people attended his funeral, most being recent acquaintances only vaguely familiar with his work.
Film directors Edward Dmytryck, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder were not among them, though each had adapted one of his novels or screenplays (as later would Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson). Humphrey Bogart wasn’t there, nor Dick Powell, nor George Montgomery, though they’d all played the author’s iconic creation, a wisecracking private-eye named Philip Marlowe. Actors as diverse as Elliot Gould, James Caan, Boothe Powers and Danny Glover would later try to fill Marlowe’s shoes.
Donald Westlake inspiring a bus tour, even though almost all of his one hundred plus books were set in New York City. Ultimately, Chandler grew bored and disillusioned with Los Angeles, both as a place to live and a setting for his fiction, quipping that the place had “all the personality of a paper cup.” By then, however, the two were like an old couple so often seen together it was impossible to imagine one without the other.
The same is true of Philip Marlowe, hero of all seven Chandler novels and a character he struggled with toward the end of his life. Fifty years later, Marlowe lives on less as an individual character than an archetype deeply ingrained into the cultural psyche, one who has spawned more imitations, homages and parodies than any American fictional personage aside from perhaps Superman. The hard-drinking, wisecracking, middle-aged lone wolf, an ex-cop who doesn’t play by the rules, a cynical tough guy with a weakness for blondes and a core incorruptibility. The figure has become such a cliché that it’s easy to lump Philip Marlowe in with all the other pulpy shamus and flatfoots and gumshoes who came before and are still coming.
But to do so would be a mistake. Part of what makes Chandler more readable today than many of his ilk is that his detective was always recognizably human. Marlowe could be duped, could be bested in a fight, could be contemplative, sentimental and was – perhaps like all cynics – a failed romantic. He could also be funny. "The General spoke again, slowly,” he writes in The Big Sleep, “using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings." Chandler’s genius for metaphor allowed Marlowe the playfulness to describe someone out of place as being “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on piece of angel food” or like “a pearl onion on a banana split.” Time crawled by “like a sick cockroach,” a thug’s face looked “like a collapsed lung” or had “as much expression as a cut of round steak and was about the same color."
No one wrote better one-liners than Raymond Chandler, and he was smart enough not to put them all in Marlowe’s mouth. This is particularly true when his detective was sparring with all those femme fatales, and it made for crackling dialogue, exchanges that were a stylistic spin-off of the racy double entendres from 1930s screwball comedies, only rendered darker and harder edged. His work on Double Indemnity showcases his gift for stylized dialogue and earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Yes, there was sexy talk (though not much more than talk), guys getting hit over the head with blackjacks, flying bullets, corpses stumbled upon and all the other genre staples. But that was just the window dressing. "My theory,” Chandler once said, “was that readers just thought that they cared about nothing but the action; that really although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The thing they really cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description."
This realization may be the key to his longevity. Raymond Chandler endures not for the stories he told – his plots were often borderline incomprehensible – but for the style with which he told them, a lean prose blend of deadpan humor, menacing atmospherics and razor sharp asides on race, class, power, corruption, the law, chess and advertising agencies (one being the most elaborate waste of human intelligence you could find outside the other). It’s a style so often imitated that when movie critic from The Hollywood Reporter recently panned the voice-over in The Watchmen as “third-rate Chandler-esque” he could be assured his readers would nod along knowingly. Among Chandler’s admirers you’ll find talents as diverse as James Bond creator Ian Fleming, critically acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and comic book creator Frank Miller, who was recently signed to adapt Chandler’s only unfilmed novel, Trouble is My Business, with Clive Owen this time donning Marlowe’s fedora.
Chandler helped propel crime stories into the mainstream, creating time honored literature carved from, as he put it, “a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities...it is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in.”
Raymond Chandler may be long gone, but we’re still living in his world.