I keep promising myself that I'll give up Raymond Chandler. But every time I think I'm on the wagon for good, I'll be standing in front of the bookshelf, looking around for a chair so I can reach that unthumbed copy of Proust, and my hand will just sort of reach out on its own and pull down "The Little Sister" or "The Long Goodbye," and there I'll be, back in 1940s Los Angeles with Philip Marlowe in his dusty office, waiting for Orfamay Quest or Terry Lennox to come through the door for about the 45th time.
The publishers are no help. Whenever I'm convinced that no one can possibly think up another excuse for another biography or another collection of letters or another volume from the Library of America, someone always finds a new way to repackage the stuff. The latest collection is called "The Raymond Chandler Papers" (Atlantic Monthly Press). It's a high-class rebottling scheme, with excellent headnotes to the entries and a lucid introduction by Chandler biographers Tom Hiney and the late Frank MacShane. But it's still rebottling: a selection of the previously published letters, previously published essays and a few previously uncollected scraps like Chandler's uncharacteristically softhearted account of his meeting with Lucky Luciano. Of course, having read 99 percent of this material didn't stop me from reading it again. And just in case I might come to my senses and join a book group and start reading Barbara Kingsolver, another publisher sent along a copy of "Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett" (Counterpoint).
I can read Chandler no matter what mood I'm in, no matter where I am. Whenever I find myself at loose ends in a strange city, I head for a bookstore, pick up a copy of whatever Chandler they have in stock and head back for the hotel. Nothing kills the off-the-rack loneliness of a hotel room like the indolent voice of Philip Marlowe.
Reams have been written about Chandler's fictional Los Angeles detective, about how his lineage can be traced back through American lit all the way to Cooper's Deerslayer, etc. I don't care about any of that. I don't care whodunit. I just like Marlowe, because he's good company, the best private eye anyone ever made up, including Sherlock Holmes, who is like no one you ever met. Marlowe is completely believable: too honest to be anything but poor, smart and funny and self-aware but never self-absorbed ("You talk too much," a client tells him. "Lonely men always talk too much," he replies). I like the way Chandler wrote about Los Angeles, too. He called it a city with "all the personality of a paper cup," but no one could mean that who could lavish the care that Chandler poured into his descriptions: "There were two open-grilled elevators but only one seemed to be running and that not very busy. An old man sat inside it slack-jawed and watery-eyed on a piece of folded burlap on top of a wooden stool. He looked as if he had been sitting there since the Civil War and had come out of that badly."
There is not much point in distinguishing between Chandler and his creation. We may suppose that Chandler was better educated (born in Chicago, he was schooled in England, arriving at Dulwich College a year after P.G. Wodehouse graduated). We know he was married, that he spent some time in the oil business and that he didn't publish a book until he was over 50. But both Chandler and Marlowe were alike where it counted: loners who drank too much, hated pomp and authority and didn't worry too much what people thought of them. Wading a little deeper, I'd suggest that it's not enough to say that Marlowe is simply Chandler in a trench coat. Yes, Marlowe's voice is the same as Chandler's in his letters. But what this means, I think, is that Chandler created not merely Marlowe but himself as well when he sat down to write. As long as he could stay hidden behind his typewriter, he was 10 feet tall.
The best thing about Marlowe is that he isn't always nice or well-behaved. He's often rude for no reason, surly and always willing to do what he can to extinguish any budding romance or friendship that falls his way. But compared to his mild-mannered descendents, he's a damn sociopath. Marlowe with the snarl extracted is the template for nearly all modern fictional detectives. With a couple of exceptions, today's fictional private eyes are all likeable guys and gals, sort of like extremely colorful cousins or something. In detective stories these days, the private eye always has a partner, or pals or pets. No one is ever alone, much less lonely. And no one ever gets tough. Marlowe wasn't that tough, but there were always plenty of tough guys around. It seems like he gets sapped or punched out in every book.
I'm not talking about violence so much as attitude. Absolutely no one today writes about anything as hard as the stuff turned out 60 years ago by Dashiell Hammett, the ex-Pinkerton who wrote "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" and the author against whom Chandler always measured himself and every other mystery writer. Hammett's heroes, with the exception of the charming Nick Charles-who had lots of friends and a wife and a dog-are not nice men. If anything, they are cold and ruthless. Sam Spade is a calculating, fairly heartless man who, when the police show him his dead partner's body, can't think of a single nice thing to say about the deceased. When his clients get in trouble he shakes them down for more money.
Hammett wasn't quite the writer Chandler was, but he was very good. If the prose in his stories and novels is a little musclebound, we now have the letters to set us straight as to just how good he could be when he was fooling around. You can get a fair notion of his intelligence, ambition and wit in the following paragraph, written in 1928 to his publisher, to whom he had just sold his first book, "Red Harvest":
"I'm one of the few-if there are any more-people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. I don't mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else's seriously-but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody's going to make 'literature' of it ([Ford Madox] Ford's "Good Soldier" wouldn't have needed much altering to have been a detective story), and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes, however slight the evident justification may be. I have a long speech I usually make on the subject, all about the ground not having been scratched yet, and so on, but I won't bore you with it now."
These letters are bittersweet when seen against the details of Hammett's life. The most salient fact was that after "The Thin Man" appeared in 1934, he never published another book. He wrote screenplays and helped his lover Lillian Hellmann a lot with her playwriting career, and he kept trying to write, at least until the 1950s, but nothing came of it. In the letters he never budges off the pose that he was still writing, or trying to, and though nothing much survives, even in rough form, you need only browse around in these letters to recognize that Hammett was a born writer who never lost his touch.
He's honored today as the father of the modern detective story, but he deserves more than that sort of footnoting. Chandler gave him his due in 1944 in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder": "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with handwrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purpose.... He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."
Most have come to Hammett and Chandler today through movies made from their books, but with the exception of "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep" and parts of the 1970s remake of "Farewell My Lovely," the books are infinitely better. Hollywood is a hard place, but almost no one there has the guts to show the world as coldly as Hammett did-which is why his books are easy to read and hard to live with, unlike Chandler's, which were essentially the work of a disillusioned humanist. No movie will ever possess the suggestibility of a Chandler novel. Movies concretize things. But the miracle of Chandler's stories lies in their evocative abilities. He lays down a few cues, and your imagination does the rest. Then there is the simple fact that movies move. They show things happening, and that's antithetical to Chandler.
Some of the best parts of his books come along when next to nothing is happening, when he's just sitting at his desk, for example, stalking a big bluebottle fly: "I had the fly swatter poised in midair and I was all set. There was a patch of bright sunlight on the corner of the desk and I knew that sooner or later that was where he was going to light. But when he did, I didn't even see him at first. The buzzing stopped and there he was. And then the phone rang.
"I reached for it inch by inch with a slow and patient left hand. I lifted the phone slowly and spoke into it softly: 'Hold the line a moment, please.'"
The first time I read Chandler, I didn't like it at all. I remember exactly where I was, and that's not something I can say about very many books-movies, yes, for some reason; I can remember which theaters I saw which movies in until I was in my twenties and all the theaters started to look alike. With books, I can remember what the jackets looked like, but that's about it. But "The Big Sleep" made an impression. I was between sixth and seventh grade, which in the 1960s meant the difference between elementary school and junior high, and I was just edging into puberty, which meant I was beginning to do things that I'd just as soon no grown-up knew about. Like searching for trashy fiction.
Now why I happened to be in our neighbor's house going through the books while no one was home-this I can't tell you. There must have been a reason, just as there must have been some reason for me to think that there would be smutty stuff in "The Big Sleep." All I remember was sitting on the floor in front of the bookcase, reading about Philip Marlowe calling on the Sternwoods in his powder blue suit and his socks with clocks, and to this day, I don't know if he's kidding when he says he was "everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be." I know I perked up over the couple of pages when Marlowe runs into Carmen, General Sternwood's nympho daughter, but when nothing much came of that encounter, I started browsing, until I came across the scene where Marlowe comes home and finds Carmen lying naked in his bed. That was more like it. But then he gets angry and throws her out and just for good measure tears the sheets off the bed. What in the world were you supposed to make of that? Whatever it was, I wasn't interested, so I put the book back on the shelf, and Chandler and I parted company for another couple of decades.
The real reason I didn't stick with Chandler that afternoon, though, had nothing to do with sex scenes; I simply wasn't ready for him. Chandler and Hammett were not happy men, and the worlds they wrought were sad places, certainly no place a kid could feel at home. I can live there now, not always cheerfully, but always with the knowledge that no one is lying to me. Responding to a letter from the editor of Harper's in 1948, Chandler set down in a paragraph his aims for the detective story (which elsewhere he calls "tragedy with a happy ending"). Reading it over, I realized that he had articulated everything I look for in a mystery:
"A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps (Black Mask and the other cheap mystery magazines that were in vogue before World War II) I put into a story a line like 'he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.' They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; they things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn't even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn't push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell."
One of the things you notice as you grow older is that some of the books you once loved now fail to move you. Then there are those books that over the course of your life you find you can't live without. In my case, these are often books that fit no conventional standard of greatness-but hey, you can't read off the approved list all the time. Some books we simply need to get us through the night. Or maybe there's nothing simple about it. Either way, Raymond Chandler has never let me down.