Book written by Raymond Chandler
Reading Chandler in large volume can be an overwhelming experience. I speak from personal knowledge as I just finished the first volume of his collected writings, containing all the short stories and the first three novels. I had read some before, but it gets to be like eating potato chips. You just go for the next one as long as the book is sitting there. In fact, I have felt at literary loose ends since completing the last novel. Volume 2 is sitting upstairs like a maiden aunt needing attention but maybe asking for more commitment than anyone in the house is up for.
Chandler may be best known for all the parodies of his hard bitten style. The combination of similes and interior monologue have pretty well defined the private eye mystery since Chandler began publishing. Through movies based on his books or that he wrote, the approach spread throughout the common cultural milieu. Other than Hemingway, I cannot think of another writer so universally made fun of.
Chandler came to writing late in life, finding success in pulps and then Hollywood. Throughout his life, he seems to have been determined to be his own worst enemy, chasing women and drink. Like Fitzgerald and many others, he set an example that has been a pox on young would-be writers ever since. The reality seems to be that he was able to separate his drinking and writing lives, such that the two did not intersect. Chandler worked hard and respected the words that he was putting down on paper. We can only wish he had respected his body half as much the rest of the time.
I rarely read short stories or novels more than once, so I find Chandler’s pull on me interesting in a navel-gazing way. His prose is powerful and his plots are interesting. The protagonists are mostly heroic with the ability to surprise. Phillip Marlowe proves to be a charming companion. But still…
Other pulp detective writers have failed to last in popularity or even in scholarly circles. Chandler probes moral dilemmas without the accompanying sense of pandering that ran through so many of his peers. Sure, the tales walk through the muck of life, but Marlowe proves a fair minded knight errant traversing the landscape of the dirtier corners of depression era LA. Marlowe’s code of chivalry hearkens back to the days of knights and damsels. Somehow Chandler tapped into his better angels as he probed the darker sides of humanity.
One interesting thing about smart discussions on moral matters is that our views change over time (both our lifetimes and across generations). Any interesting dissertation can provide fodder for meditation at those different junctions when our opinions change.
Maybe Marlowe was Chandler’s better angel, allowing the author to be the man he wished for himself. Perhaps the tougher truth is that Marlowe is that guide to our best behavior even under duress. If he can do the right thing facing his trials, then maybe there is hope for us.
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