Trouble Was His Business — Raymond Chandler

The Mystery Man

Raymond Chandler captured the heartbeat of L.A. A new collection shows his influence still resonates in our times.

November 3, 1995


as is often said, every city has at least one writer it can claim for a
muse, Raymond Chandler must be Los Angeles’. To be sure, there are
other candidates: John Fante and Nathanael West come immediately to
mind, while from a later generation, Joan Didion more than makes the
grade. Yet Fante’s work was too personal to be truly universal, and
West’s oeuvre was just too small. Didion, for her part, has become an
author of global vision, which may explain why she abandoned Southern
California for New York.

That leaves Chandler as the one L.A.
writer whose books have as a consistent center the idea of the city as
a living, breathing character–capturing the sights, the smells, the
bleak glare of the sunlight, the deceptive smoothness of the surface
beneath which nothing is as it seems.

Even the fact that
Chandler wrote mysteries, not literary fiction, is oddly fitting, for
Los Angeles has always existed not so much in conjunction with East
Coast or European intellectual traditions as in reaction to them, a
place where high and low culture constantly merge. Maybe it’s the
influence of the movies, or, in the words of novelist John Gregory
Dunne, the fact that "Los Angeles is three thousand miles away."

as biographer Frank MacShane explains in "The Life of Raymond
Chandler," "There is something appropriate in Chandler’s choosing the
detective story as his vehicle for presenting Los Angeles. . . . The
detective story, so peculiar to the modern city, can involve an
extraordinary range of humanity, from the very rich to the very poor,
and can encompass a great many different places. Most of Chandler’s
contemporaries who wrote ‘straight’ fiction–Fitzgerald, Hemingway and
Faulkner, for example–confined themselves to a special setting and a
limited cast of characters. The detective story, however, allowed
Chandler to create the whole of Los Angeles in much the same way that
such 19th-Century novelists as Dickens and Balzac created London and
Paris for future generations."

Chandler, of course, has never
been a Los Angeles secret; his books have sold steadily from the moment
they began to appear more than 50 years ago, and his distinctive,
clipped style and characters have become so persuasive as to be
cultural cliches. Half a century later, Philip Marlowe remains the
quintessential urban private eye, a solitary hero who, in "Farewell, My
Lovely," sums up his point of view: "I needed a drink, I needed a lot
of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a house in the
country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."

It’s a
desolate perspective, almost prototypically existential, that at the
same time implies a certain moral vision, a sense of seeing the world
for the darkness it holds and still trying to do what’s right. It’s
because of this, I believe, that Chandler’s influence has continued to
resonate so strongly in our own times, since when you get right down to
it, Marlowe knows the score.

Thinking about that, I can’t help
wondering what Chandler’s detective would make of the recent release by
the Library of America of "Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels"
and "Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings," a two-volume,
2,200-page set collecting all seven Marlowe novels and 13 short
stories, along with some miscellaneous odds and ends. Such a
publication represents a validation. But it’s also a bit incongruous,
as if we’re getting away with something when what we find staring back
at us from all that onionskin paper–delicate like a Bible–is Philip
Marlowe and his black-and-white world.

What’s most striking
about the Library of America’s interest in Chandler is the fact that
he’s not only the first "genre" writer they’ve collected, but the first
Los Angeles writer as well. Nowhere in the series’ 50-odd volumes will
you find, say, Fante or West, nor even F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, toward
the end of his life, turned his eye upon Hollywood. According to
publisher Max Rudin, that doesn’t mean much. "There’s a common
misperception that order says something about literary significance,"
he says. "But our decisions have to balance our mission–to produce a
series that will ultimately include all significant American
writers–with staying alive."

Nonetheless, there’s an irony at
work since the Library of America was originally the dream of critic
Edmund Wilson, whose 1945 New Yorker essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger
Ackroyd?" dismissed virtually the entire mystery genre except for
Chandler, damning him instead with faint praise. Wilson died before his
idea for the library became a reality, but you have to wonder what he
might think about Chandler’s inclusion and what it says about what
Rudin calls the "false dichotomy" between literary and popular culture,
which seems to grow smaller every day.

In any event, one thing’s
for certain: Chandler himself would have loved it. American-born but
educated in England, he was a mild-mannered man who wore tweed jackets
and smoked a pipe, and lived in a succession of nondescript homes with
his invalid wife, Cissy. Throughout his life, he fancied himself an
intellectual and brought a poet’s intensity to his work.

people may not know about Raymond Chandler," Rudin suggests, "is what a
self-conscious artist he was." The work in the Library of America set
bears this out. There is the fiction, much of it polished and taut,
although executive editor Geoffrey O’Brien admits that "the early
novels [‘The Big Sleep,’ ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ and ‘The High Window’]
are stronger."

But more telling are the five essays and the
30-page selection of letters, which crystallize Chandler’s aesthetics
in an unexpected way. "The Simple Art of Murder," for instance,
originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in December, 1944, is so
concise and well-reasoned a representation of the author’s ideas that I
have dogeared nearly every page. When, toward the beginning of the
piece, Chandler writes, "There are not vital and significant forms of
art; there is only art, and precious little of that," it is as clear a
declaration of war against "the trained seals of the critical
fraternity" as you’re likely to find. "It is always a matter of who
writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with," Chandler
claims. "Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality;
there are no dull subjects, only dull minds."

This is an
absolutely essential point, one that bears repeating. For the
distinction between genre fiction and serious literature is spurious,
whether your frame of reference is Hollywood or Manhattan’s publishing
world. A description like "The Little Sister’s" reference to California
as "the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of
nothing" is simply good writing; there’s no need to place an asterisk
next to it because it appeared in a detective novel.

Chandler’s plotting can be spotty–one of my favorite stories about him
involved a telegram Howard Hawks sent during production of "The Big
Sleep," asking who had killed the chauffeur; Chandler, it is said,
responded, "I don’t know."

But as O’Brien explains, "For
Chandler, plot was something to string together a series of powerfully
imagined scenes. His real appeal is his formalism: His work is as
completely stylized as a Kabuki play, an absolutely formal dance that
pretends to be realism. Style is what it was all about." And novelist
Carolyn See, who teaches Chandler at UCLA, says, "His strength as a
writer was his evocation of scenes. He takes us into a different world,
a world that’s like ours, but isn’t. It’s a violent world, a random
world, in which it doesn’t matter who did it, just how you behave."

himself made no bones about his goals as a writer: "It doesn’t matter a
damn what a novel is about," he wrote in a 1945 letter to the
Atlantic’s Charles Morton. "The only writers left who have anything to
say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around
with odd ways of doing it."

In a classically perverse twist,
however, Chandler spent years working in Hollywood. An adaptation of
James M. Cain’s "Double Indemnity," which Chandler co-wrote with
director Billy Wilder, is included in the Library of America
collection, and it makes for a vivid lesson in the art of collaborating
for the screen. Sheldon MacArthur, manager of West Hollywood’s
Mysterious Bookstore, who has read Chandler’s first draft, says, "It
has great mood, great description, but was unfilmable; it made no
sense." The finished script, on the other hand, "is superb, seminal. It
retains all of Chandler’s dialogue, but Wilder made the plot work."

MacArthur’s view, Chandler’s Hollywood experience was ultimately
destructive. "He began to be unsure of himself as a writer, and that,
in turn, made him drink," he says. "In addition, he didn’t like many of
the films made from his own books."

That represents another
contradiction, for it is the screen versions of Chandler’s novels that
brought his characters and situations so forcefully to the forefront of
the popular imagination and guaranteed their survival as American
archetypes. To this day, more people are probably familiar with Philip
Marlowe from Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal in "The Big Sleep" than from
anything Chandler ever wrote.

"I think a lot more people have
seen the Chandler movies than read the books," says Rob Cohen, who
publishes the bimonthly literary journal Caffeine, "and that’s where
the influence begins. It was so cool and yet so underground."

all the cultural currency of film noir, it’s hardly astonishing to see
directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Carl Franklin make movies that
hark back to the golden age of Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Nor is it
unexpected that such mystery writers as Walter Mosley and Robert B.
Parker have been profoundly moved by what Chandler has done.

the new TV series "Murder One" borrows from Chandler in the seamless
way it commingles the highest and lowest levels of society, bringing
together movie stars and pornographers, philanthropists and teen-age
prostitutes. "He’s the perfect novelist for our times," See explains,
"because he tells us what we already know–that the system and
criminals are equally corrupt. He sets up a pastoral world that’s
totally infested with evil. The whole place bespeaks alienation, and no
one is better than anyone else."

If there were any doubt as to
the continued relevance of this perspective in portraying the social
landscape of Los Angeles, all we need to do is look to the recent
events at the courthouse: a Chandleresque bit of vaudeville if ever
there was one, in which we have been offered yet another glimpse at the
ways in which there is no such thing as the moral upper hand.

prescience may be why, of all the detective novelists, he has exerted
the most crossover effect on so-called serious authors. From Charles
Bukowski, whose final novel "Pulp" was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the
hard-boiled genre, to Paul Auster, whose mid-1980s "New York Trilogy"
recast the detective novel from a post-modern point of view, Chandler
has cast a long shadow. Indeed, Chandler’s conjoining of the vernacular
with literary textures suggests a direction for writers to pursue at a
time when traditional methods of storytelling have begun to seem
contrived, too fixed and non-fluid to encompass the jarring
juxtapositions that make up real life.

Of course, the question
that begs to be answered is why Chandler’s stripped-down, edgy style of
writing has come so fully to define Los Angeles. Is it because such an
attitude is somehow endemic to the city, or just that Chandler’s own
voice is now, as MacArthur believes, "the first thing that comes to
mind when you think about L.A."? In other words, is Chandler the
architect of the Southern California aesthetic or merely the writer who
brought it to its highest form?

It’s an issue you can play with
endlessly, one that, in all likelihood, will never be resolved. "Real
life," says writer Benjamin Weissman, "has influenced a lot of Los
Angeles writers more than Chandler has," and certainly many of
Chandler’s contemporaries wrote about the city in their own world-weary

Fante, for instance, begins "Ask the Dust" with a
statement that could be Marlowe talking: "One night I was sitting on
the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill down in the very middle of Los
Angeles. It was an important night in my life because I had to make a
decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what
the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great
problem deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the
lights and going to bed."

And in "The Day of the Locust," West
writes with equal succinctness about the emptiness of the California
dream. "Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine
and oranges?" he asks. "Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t
enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion
fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time."

the bottom line is, as See suggests, that "you can look at the West
Coast as the end of the road for the American dream. We’re up against a
blank wall here, and we can’t go any farther. There is no out, you’re
here." If so, then Chandler stands not as creator but pioneer, who
captured the dislocation at the heart of Los Angeles in as vivid a way
as anyone before or since.

Even Didion, who, according to
husband John Gregory Dunne "has not read Chandler and has nothing to
say about him," operates in the Chandler mold. Her essay "Some Dreamers
of the Golden Dream" opens with a description of Santa Ana winds season
that seems right out of Chandler’s "Red Wind," and in "Pacific
Distances," she captures the Zeitgeist of a city that, apparently, has
not changed since Marlowe walked its streets. "When I first moved to
Los Angeles from New York in 1964," Didion writes, "I found [the]
absence of narrative a deprivation. At the end of two years I realized
(quite suddenly, alone one morning in the car) that I had come to find
narrative sentimental."

Narrative sentimental? That’s a
hard-boiled conception if I ever heard one, and it makes me think of
Chandler again. After all, he, too, thought narrative was sentimental
and saw no room for its deceptions in a city as brutal, as "lost and
beaten and full of emptiness," as Los Angeles. For him, the writer was
a kind of detective, and it was his job to see through the illusions
and get at the truth.

As he writes in "The Little Sister," "I
smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a
living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights
fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to
the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble.
There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing."

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.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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