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LoA Chandler Vol. 1

Got the generator.

Got the wi-fi.

Now I’ve got the laptop. Time to get back to work.


Raymond Chandler once said of his writing that he “wrote pulp stories with as much care as slick stories. It was very poor pay for the work I put into them.” A sad state of affairs for him, but his integrity paid off in the end, as there is no compromise to be found between Chandler’s status as prime entertainment and as an icon of American literature. Where James M. Cain over-reached himself in Double Indemnity, labouring on the symbols of boat, moon and surrender to fate and shredding what was left of the book’s logic on the altar of French symbolism, Chandler’s conclusions can be poetic and arresting without the least pretense or damage to what came before. He swiftly improved upon the style of Dashiell Hammett and his stories often sport vivid and unusual scenes that keep them from blurring together in the noir mass that even Hammett’s best Continental Op tales fall into. Everyone should read some Raymond Chandler and a collection of his pulp stories is a fine place to start.

There are a number of compendiums to choose from, including the rather ridiculous Vintage split (Trouble is My Business / The Simple Art of Murder – well, it’s hard to make money in publishing, isn’t it?). I got very lucky and acquired a Library of America volume featuring the thirteen pulp stories that Chandler did NOT cannibalize for later use in a Marlowe novel. Later material such as ‘Killer in the Rain’ were not given the greenlight to be republished in Chandler’s lifetime and are chiefly of interest to his scholars anyway. So in this edition readers can watch his style develop from the clumsy action of ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ (1933) to the Saturday Evening Post approved ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ (1939) without any fear of repetition when starting the novels.

The net effect of all these stories: Vibrancy. Skill at setting a scene and sketching a character. Observe Kathy Horne from ‘Goldfish’: 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. In the meantime she ran the cigar counter at the Mansion House, and watched the grifters go by in a haze of nickel cigar smoke. And once in a while lent one of them ten dollars to get out of town. She was just that soft. 

And Chandler is just that good. Past one in the morning, a jazz band blows a ruckus in a motel hallway and the house detective is sent to sort it out… A man steps out of an elevator, gets rammed by a stranger with cocaine in his eyes and finds a blackjacked blonde on the hall floor… A guy waits out the Santa Ana wind in a bar when another man enters looking for a well-dressed girl and gunfire ensues. These are just three of the starting points for Chandler’s rocketships of plot. Are the stories improbable? You bet. This is the writer who, when wired about a minor death in The Big Sleep adaptation, couldn’t even say if the character was murdered or not. Are there too many murders? Guilty as charged. If whatever Marlowe-prototype he’s using rings a bell and there’s no answer it’s a safe bet there’s a body on the other side. It becomes both predictable and ludicrous when murder is the only fix.

His plots are a wild ride up and down and all around 1930s LA but they aren’t meaningful by themselves. For that, the best ones are populated by splendid characters whose fates actually seem to matter – all centered around the Marlowe prototype: the cynical tough guy with a soft streak, riding into battle in aid of some sad-eyed dame who “looked like a nice girl” (or at least didn’t look dead), sidestepping cops and raking through other people’s muck while bodies clutter up the road.

Possible caveats: Meaningless (though by modern standards not gratuitous) violence. Large doses of 30s slang.

And now the rundown, which I will attempt to keep colourful and spoiler-free.

‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ is a very bad intro to Chandler’s style. I got about ten pages in before jumping ahead to the much more satisfactory ‘Trouble is My Business.’ Problems include a spoiled screen star who talks like a reject from a Djuna Barnes story (“The people are dissipated without grace, sinful without irony” – well, don’t YOU have problems, lady!), tough guys who call each other “sweetheart” and “baby” and a complicated plot full of doublecrosses between barely established characters. When the bloodbath starts, it is impossible to care and the dialogue lacks zing, though by the conclusion we can see glimpses of the real Chandler’s ironies and elegance even in this apprentice work. When asked to explain how RandomGuy got killed, forgettable Marlowe prototype Mallory pithily summarizes: “He crossed everybody up and then he crossed himself. He played too many parts and got his lines mixed. He was gun-drunk. When he got a rod in his hand he had to shoot somebody. Somebody shot back.” But this only hints at how good he’s gonna get so hang in there.

‘Smart-Aleck Kill’ is already an improvement, putting more emphasis on scenes that shine in or out of context (his specialty) rather than A-to-B-to-C plotting. Scenes here include a shootout with a police squad and a wild and crazy party in the best 20s style, peppered with phrases like a bottle of gin in each hand, slopping liquor out of her glass and shooting craps on the floor. Meanwhile the shootout is like a scene from an old Hollywood movie: the red spotlight with Jean Harlow frozen in the glare, then everyone in the room takes cover and the machine gun lets loose. I should mention that it’s a simple matter to take Chandler’s characters and match them to the Hollywood legends of your choice – part of the fun, as it were.

‘Finger Man’ ditches Mallory (thankfully) and takes up the first person, the plot unfolding far more smoothly as a result. Chandler inserts a black Persian cat – because he can (adorable). The building blocks are all in place at this point and Chandler rises from this capable tale of gambling, a femme fatale and a big politico to become the king of the crime story.

‘Nevada Gas’ offers the first memorable cold open I was talking about. Instead of an expository conversation in an indifferent room we get a politician in a deathtrap car. The gambling hero of the story, De Ruse, has an oft-repeated metallic smile and is so forgettably calm and competent that I had to picture him as James Marsters to feel any interest in his fate. On the other hand Chandler does include a fun set of subversions of the usual device of killing off helpful people.

‘Spanish Blood’ is a complete mess plotwise, involving a thatch of unnecessary murders. Good news is it contains the first of his strangely haunting final scenes, an increase in Chandlerisms (racket beer is “tasteless as a roadhouse blonde”), a tough as nails Spanish detective and an understated and creepy scene at a lakeside cabin: He opened the back door with another key and stepped out on a small porch flush with the ground, near a big pile of cordwood and a double-bitted axe on a chopping block.

Then he saw the flies.

In 1936 Chandler’s first truly brilliant story appeared: ‘Guns at Cyrano’s.’ Perfect atmosphere of pouring rain, boxing matches, a sexy floor show and blackmail but what puts it over the top is that the characters actually matter. The rich hotel owner Ted Malvern and gun-toting tramp Jean Adrian might have more in common than they at first realize. There’s romance and redemption and when the inevitable body appears it has some real impact because Malvern knew the victim and they had some scenes together rather than a cheap introductory hit-and-run. It’s emotionally solid, entertaining and highly accomplished.

So I don’t know how his evolutions in excellence got derailed by ‘Pick-Up on Noon Street.’ Other than ‘Blackmailers’ it is easily the worst story in here. First of all, it’s the only story with a predominately black cast, making it extremely noticeable when he proceeds to kill off said cast with as much gusto and even less logic than The Walking Dead. At its most gratuitous (mild spoilers), the hero Pete Anglich is knocked out and comes to in a room with a prostitute (seen briefly at the start of and only tangentially related to the story at hand) who has been murdered solely to frame him for the crime. Senseless violence, lack of panache, forgettable villains so eager to kill each other you have to wonder what the hero’s even there for and a tediously helpless damsel in place of the usually strong-willed Chandler dame. I don’t know what happened here but it’s a disaster.

Pearls show up and revitalise Chandler’s imagination in ‘Goldfish.’ The fellow from ‘Finger Man’ reappears, now called Carmady and feeling more and more like Marlowe. We shook hands, grinned at each other like a couple of wise boys who know they’re not kidding anybody, but won’t give up trying. There’s some nice contrast between Kathy Horne, a softhearted woman, and cold-blooded killer Carol Donovan – with Mrs. Sype as an unknown quantity showing aspects of both. By this point Chandler had outstripped The Continental Op both in literary style and vividness of character, wrapped up with a particularly eerie denouement – a still tableau of guns facing off surrounded by peaceable goldfish tanks is not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

Then there’s ‘Red Wind,’ 1938 and justifiably lauded as a classic of the genre. From the first paragraph it’s a nonstop treat: 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. This one represents Chandler’s artistic maturity, sidestepping shootouts and finding suspense in the moment before the gun goes off, when the situation can still be saved. The final scene poetic, elegiac and understated, befitting a classic. Go read it.

‘The King in Yellow’ is comparatively flawed but memorable and bizarre. The king of the title is an arrogant, vile-mannered jazz god with a fondness for yellow pajamas, but it’s also the title given to the classic weird tales of Robert W. Chambers, involving a book called The King in Yellow that brings madness and misfortune to those who read it. This connection is never explained. And then the murders start piling up and they feel targeted in a way that’s more serial killer than gangster cover-up. “Tough on women, these guys,” he muttered. By the big reveal of chapter seven my skin was just crawling and then the villain confrontation happened at night…in a mountain cabin…with red drapes. I was filled with happy Twin Peaks horror but occult criminality has no place in the simple art of murder and just this once I wish Chandler had mixed his genres because he’d have been really good at it.

In his last year of pulp stories, 1939, Chandler concocted a spoof on Golden Age mysteries with ‘Pearls Are a Nuisance.’ There’s a rich old bag, stolen pearls, and an idler who talks “the way Jane Austen writes” reluctantly setting out to find them at his fiancée’s insistence. He teams up with working class Henry and there’s a great deal of odd couple humour, much drinking, another round of bait and switch pearls (Chandler got a ton of creative mileage out of that one) and plenty of fisticuffs with a refreshing lack of corpses. The narrative touch is a delight, lightly cynical and sentimental all at once. In a moment the door opened again and Ellen Macintosh came in. Maybe you don’t like tall girls with honey-colored hair and skin like the first strawberry peach the grocer sneaks out of the box for himself. If you don’t, I’m sorry for you. It’s silly and rather sweet, though I suppose real hard-boiled fans would never admit to liking it. Stereotypes aside, it’s one of my favorites.

As of ‘Trouble is My Business’ we have reached the fully formed, movie-worthy Philip Marlowe, still lingering under the assumed name of John Dalmas. From the very first line, every sentence cuts. If ‘Red Wind’ is the peak of Chandler’s plot mechanics and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ of his craft, ‘Trouble’ is pound for pound the absolute triumph of his style. See here:

He wouldn’t pull anything crude, but if he pulled at all, something would pop.

I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it.

He had the frowsy expression of a veteran cop who hadn’t got very far.

One of those perfumes you don’t notice until they are almost gone, like the last leaf on a tree.

It’s pure pleasure to read and revisit and yet the weird thing is it’s wholly forgettable. ‘Trouble’ was the first story I read but all I really remember of it is Marlowe’s (sorry, Dalmas’s) fantastic narration. The plot and characters stand up well but every interaction is filtered through this voice until he’s really the only thing on the page. The great scenes of earlier works aren’t forthcoming but the most inconsequential moments light up. Not a bad trade-off.

And so to conclude with ‘I’ll be Waiting,’ an elegant finish with the neat, reserved interactions of a one-act play. One o’clock in the morning, house detective Tony Reseck makes his rounds. There’s a redhead curled up in the radio room, a tall dark tough guy with the “trouble boys” on his heels, and Tony’s brother on the street outside with a warning. Later on there’s a phone call. All violence occurs offstage. A brief juncture of life and crime, recognisably Chandler’s world in vignette – a poetic distillation with the coarser elements of comedy, cruelty and cynicism removed. The mechanics of plot-mystery-reveal are done away with. Chandler never wrote another story for the slicks and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ was the last one he wrote to stand on its own without cannibalizing for inclusion in a Marlowe novel. It can stand as a summation of his early art. He listened. Not to the radio – to far-off, uncertain things, menacing things. And perhaps to just the safe whir of wheels going away into a strange night.

In conclusion this is noir done right. Cherish it.

Raymond Chandler