Trouble Was His Business — Raymond Chandler

Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s death, the
Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times stories about his life and
influence. We invite the Daily Mirror’s readers to share their thoughts.

The Raymond Chandler Lookalike Contest

RAYMOND CHANDLER’S PHILIP MARLOWE A Centennial Celebration, edited by Byron Preiss

December 18, 1988

By Kenneth Turan, Turan is film critic for Gentlemen’s Quarterly. (Note that Turan is now at The Times).

fiction is a lean, mean revolution that has grown soft and fat on its
own success. American writers, fed up with effete British detective
stories that focused as much on tea cozies as corpses, decided to liven
things up by adding a dose of reality and a dash of style. Carroll John
Daly, who favored lines such as "Dead? He was as cold as an old maid’s
smile," fired the first shot when he published a short story called
"The False Burton Combs" in the December, 1922, issue of a magazine
called Black Mask. Then came the big guns: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond
Chandler and James M. Cain, all intent, in Chandler’s often-quoted
words, on "getting murder away from the upper classes, the weekend
house party and the vicar’s rose garden and back to the people who are
really good at it."

Did they succeed? And how. Hard-boiled
fiction has become a literary growth industry paralleled only by the
boom in romantic fiction. Every year yet another brace of Chandler
imitators roars out of the blocks to admiring reviews from critics and
sizable sales to readers hungry for even a taste of the savory
satisfactions the originals gave. The ever-irascible Chandler, who
liked to refer to himself as "just a beat-up pulp writer . . . In the
United States I ranked slightly above a mulatto," would surely be
astonished by the mushrooming of the style he helped pioneer.

success, however, has come inevitable flabbiness. Today’s Chandler
imitators, even the best of them, are just that, imitators, unable to
match the excitement that is generated only by writing that is
provocatively original. The situation got so bad that Donald Westlake,
whose Parker novels ("Parker steals. Parker kills. It’s a living") are
in fact the best hard-boiled work of the last 25 years, was moved to
make a speech about it a few years back.

"I try to inhale and I
don’t sense any air here," Westlake said of the current state of the
genre. "What are these books? What do they connect to? The brevity of
those early Black Mask days is long gone. The relevance of those days
is gone. The vitality of novelty is gone. The reflections of any
underlying trust is gone. I’m not really sure what’s left."

left is the desire to cash in, a desire that even as prestigious a
publisher as Alfred A. Knopf, which first published Chandler and
Hammett in book form, can’t seem to resist. A few months ago, Knopf
came out with a hardcover edition of "Woman in the Dark," one of
Hammett’s more forgettable novelettes, and now comes "Raymond
Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration."

commemorate the 100th year of the writer’s birth, packager Byron Preiss
came up with what must have seemed like a good idea at the time,
something reasonably dignified and quintessentially lucrative: Contact
23 current mystery writers and have each one of them write a story with
Marlowe as detective solving crimes left and right. Add "The Pencil,"
Chandler’s last story. You can almost hear those cash registers ringing

Not all writers contacted, however, were delighted.
Joseph Hansen, for one, made it known that he felt the idea was
"somewhat akin to grave-robbing. Philip Marlowe is a creation of the
imaginative mind of Raymond Chandler, and I don’t believe every Tom,
Dick and Harry has the right to lay claim to him. Ethically, you can’t
do that."

Even more likely suspects than Hansen are missing from
the list, though whether it’s because they weren’t asked or because
they turned the task down is impossible to say. Westlake isn’t here,
probably for obvious reasons, and neither is Lawrence Block, the
odds-on best of the current hard-boiled writers, or Robert Parker, the
most popular.

Still, the list contains considerable first-rate
talent, people such as Loren D. Estleman, Dick Lochte, Sara Paretsky,
Roger L. Simon and Jonathan Valin. And the writers clearly tried to
rise to the occasion, often putting in nuggets of detective trivia for
fans to relish. One story has Marlowe reading Paul Cain’s "Fast One,"
one of the legendary hard-boiled novels; another has him yearning for
the powder-blue suit cognoscenti know he wore in the opening of "The
Big Sleep"; a third has Marlowe running into Chandler himself.

are some new twists when it comes to plots–the use of subject matter
such as child molestation, for instance, which would have been taboo in
Chandler’s day. But mostly it’s the usual round of missing persons and
blackmail, small errands that turn into big trouble. The best stories,
interestingly enough, are the ones that succeed in capturing the whiff
of melancholia that blew through Marlowe’s life like the famous Red
Wind. Mostly, however, these tales are simply too derivative to be
seriously involving. What made Chandler’s stories so readable was not
that Marlowe was in them but that they were written with a verve that
mere copies, no matter how well-intentioned or clever, cannot hope to
match. While the writers clearly had fun paying homage to a man they
rightfully respect, sharing in their enthusiasm is something else

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in books, Film, Hollywood, Raymond Chandler. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Trouble Was His Business — Raymond Chandler

  1. Arye Michael Bender says:

    Talk about playing against type…
    While Dashiel Hammett worked his own role, even Raymond Chandler didn’t look like the kind of person who wrote like Raymond Chandler. He looked like an insurance salesman who hated his job, then consoled himself by getting drunk every night.
    The image of Chandler belies the dark poet who lived inside. Another element that makes his writing all the more delicious.


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