A few months back I posted here my Mystery Writers Honor Roll, never thinking that after a lifetime of reading in that genre, I might find a need to revise that list. Well, I'm doing so unabashedly because I recently concluded a Raymond Chandler jag in which I devoured the Library of America edition which featured him. That closely-packed, 1200 page book contained three Chandler novels (The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The High Window) along with thirteen stories published in American magazines in the thirties. Those magazines were primarily “pulps” like Black Mask and Dime Detective.
I had once read The Big Sleep but it hadn’t left any strong effect and all the others were completely new to me. But they certainly struck a very responsive chord in the last couple of weeks, thereby winning Chandler a welcome place in the Honor Roll.
Chandler is a terrific mystery writer though his style leans more to the hard-boiled detective and police procedural genres than the traditional mystery. In that sense, he would rank alongside Erle Stanley Gardner in my list. But Chandler strives for higher goals than Gardner in his writing – simple entertainment and well-paying profits are not enough. And though Chandler himself was never satisfied with his work, there were many who considered him not only a superb detective novelist but a fine literary craftsman as well. In that company were Gardner himself, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh.
Raymond Chandler’s stories are detailed, dark, and though filled with action, they are also cerebral in theme and complex in plot. The prose is terse, often delicately timed to the action being described. In this, he shows a poetic skill very rare in the form. There is also a high regard for realism in his descriptions of characters, dialogue and setting and he manages all of them extremely well.
His world, of course, is filled with the thugs, cops, molls and saps of the underworld and there’s plenty of blackmail, corruption, robbery, bluffs, gunplay, fisticuffs, car chases and car crashes, mysterious beauties, heavy villains, seedy scenes and tough talk. But Chandler's protagonists always blaze through to a triumphant ending with justice well served. And if the heroes heads aren’t always intact by the closing sentence, their principles are.
So, I repeat; Raymond Chandler has been warmly inducted into my Mystery Writers Honor Roll and for those of you interested in the genre, I’m recommending you give him a try. You’ll find very well drawn characters, inventive yet easily believable plots and a concise, rhythmic use of simple sentences.
And speaking of sentences -- I confess I was as captivated by the wit and imagination of those uniquely descriptive phrases known as “Chandlerisms” as anybody else. In fact, here are just a few of the many I noted along the way:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”--“Red Wind”
“The knocking sounded again... I went over and opened the door—without a gun. That was a mistake.”--“Red Wind”
“His eyes measured me for a coffin...”--“Red Wind”
“Rhonda Farr...held up her hand, the one with the cigarette holder, looked at it, posing. It was a beautiful hand, without a ring. Beautiful hands are as rare as jacaranda trees in bloom, in a city where pretty faces are as common as runs in dollar stockings.”--“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”
Ricchio went on: ‘We’ll play clean. Our racket wouldn’t be worth a squashed bug if we didn’t. You’ll play clean too. If you don’t your shamus will wake up on a pile of dirt. Only he won’t wake up. Get it?’--“Smart-Aleck Kill”
"I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard." --"The King in Yellow"
‘”If you want trouble,’ he said, ‘I come from where they make it.’”--“The King in Yellow”
“I didn’t say anything. I was way past the age when it’s fun to swear at people you can’t hurt."--“Finger Man”
“Dorr raised his head a few inches and looked at me with his mouth slightly open. He had beautiful teeth, but they hadn’t grown in his mouth. --“Finger Man”
“As a bluff, mine was thinner than the gold on a week-end wedding ring." --“Finger Man”
“Shoes dropped on cement and a smaller spotlight stabbed at him sideways from the end of the billboards. Behind the spot a casual voice spoke: ‘Don’t shift an eyelash, bud. You’re all wrapped up in law.’”--“Pick-Up on Noon Street”
“She was a tall, seedy, sad-eyed blonde who had once been a policewoman and had lost her job when she married a cheap little check-bouncer named Johnny Horne, to reform him. She hadn’t reformed him, but she was waiting for him to come out so she could try again.” --“Goldfish”
"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."-- Farewell, My Lovely
“This car sticks out like spats at an Iowa picnic.”-- Farewell, My Lovely
“Who is this Hemingway person at all? A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”-- Farewell, My Lovely
“But me not buts. I make a sop of you. I’ll drown you in a butt of Malmsey wine. I wish I had a butt of Malmsey wine to drown in. Shakespeare. He knew his liquor too.”-- Farewell, My Lovely
‘"She's a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she's washed her hair since Coolidge's second term, I'll eat my spare tire, rim and all."’ -- Farewell, My Lovely
"The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. I sneaked over to the side entrance and pressed a bell and somewhere a set of chimes made a deep mellow sound like church bells. A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day."-- Farewell, My Lovely
“She had a voice you could crack a brazil nut on.”-- The Lady in the Lake
"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."--The High Window