Raymond Chandler: An Appreciation

“The people who really like my books are those who like them in spite of their being mysteries, not because of.” — Raymond Chandler

I first discovered Raymond Chandler’s books during the Reagan administration. I had a great English teacher at college in Oneonta, Pat Meanor, who directed me to Chandler’s writing. In particular, the concreteness, the clear-eyed specificity of it. At the same time, I was an English major in college, studying all the high-flying literary masters. Raymond Chandler, a writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, did not fit into that mold. I was slogging through Joyce’s Ulysses. I was interested in poetry and William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman. Wasn’t Chandler beneath the purview of an aspiring college student, full of hopes and dreams and himself?

But then I read the books. And the selected letters. Two, three, fours time each. When I started writing the Jigsaw Jones series in the late 90’s, Chandler was my inspiration and guiding light. I loved his zip and verve, his attention to detail, the crisp patter, outrageous similes, and, yes, the humor. This guy was funny. He was also, I would contend, one of the great American stylists of the 20th century.

When I own a copy of a book — when it’s not borrowed from the library — I usually read with a pen in my hand. I mark passages, make stars and check marks, underline sentences, jot notes. I love a marked-up book. I think books should be scribbled in, possessed. Today I can pick up anything by Chandler and find great, muscular sentences, surprising observations, unexpected beauty or laugh-out-loud lines. Writing Jigsaw, I’d sometimes intentionally echo moments from Chandler’s books. For example, my Bigs Maloney character stood in for Chandler’s Moose Malloy (Farewell, My Lovely). Chandler described Moose this way: “He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.” Jigsaw, sizing up Bigs Maloney, had a similar observation: “Bigs was the roughest, toughest kid in second grade — but not taller than a grizzly bear and not wider than a soda machine.” That was from Jigsaw Jones #8: The Great Sled Race (out of print, it seems). An aside: Big Maloney was also a variant on Bugs Meany, the neighborhood weasel from Donald Sobel’s “Encyclopedia Brown” books.

To me, that was a tribute, a tip of the hat, and if any reader noticed, I never heard about it.

While Chandler was a master of the one-liner, he could also write some amazing descriptive passages, filled with concrete details (as opposed to purple imagery), yet always reflecting the internal life of the narrator. Here’s two I found, just skimming:

We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.

Here’s how he opens The Big Sleep:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.

I used that set-up in Jigsaw Jones #19: The Case of the Missing Key, when Jigsaw calls on the richest kid in town. (By the way, it looks like Scholastic let this book go out of print. So sad.) I wrote on page 3:

That was the first time I laid eyes on Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III. He was shorter than me, though he stood as straight as a U.S. Marine. Reginald was dressed in crisp khakis and a sweater vest over a button-down shirt. He wore a tidy bow tie and his slick black hair was held in place by gooey gel. With his right pinky, Reginald pushed a pair of round eyeglasses from the tip of his nose closer to his face.

He eyed me with all the warmth of a sick goldfish. “And you might be . . . ?”

“I might be Jigsaw Jones,” I answered. “At least that’s the name on the card.”

I handed him my business card.

And later, in the same scene, there’s that spirit of Chandler running through my lines:

“I see you’re a wiseguy,” he observed.

“Only when I need to be,” I replied. “Look, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage the Third. You told me on the phone that it was an emergency. I dropped everything, hopped on my bike, and rode all the way out here. Up three big hills, against the wind.” I paused, a little weary. “You got any grape juice?”

“Grape juice?”

“How about just a few grapes?” I suggested. “I’ll stomp on ‘em myself.”

This time, Reginald smiled. A real, honest-to-goodness smile. “All right, then. I’ll instruct Madge to prepare refreshments. You’re funny, Jones. I am beginning to like you.”

“I’m beginning to like myself, too,” I mumbled. “Lead the way, Reginald. I’ll tag along behind.”

Here’s some other random Chandler lines, grabbed as I flip through my worn copy of The Big Sleep. Reading him now, I keep thinking the same thing, The guy was just so entertaining. He couldn’t write plots to save his life, in truth, didn’t really care about them, but what a lively writer. It was never about plot with Chandler. It was always scene, effect, character, moments. That’s how I always thought of Jigsaw, too. I wasn’t writing mysteries, per say, I was writing Entertainments. I wanted the books to be fun. Look out below for more Chandler:

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

—–

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.

—–

[Marlowe says]: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

—–

I sat there and poisoned myself with cigarette smoke and listened to the rain and thought about it.

—–

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.

—–

“Let’s take a little walk,” I said. “Let’s take a nice little walk.”

We took a little walk.

——

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

—–

Seaward a few gulls wheeled and swooped over something in the surf and far out a white yacht looked as if it was hanging in the sky.

—–

“You can call me Vivian.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Regan.”

——-

“Jesus,” he said and licked his lower lip. His face had turned white as paper when I mentioned Eddie Mars. His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to the corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. “Aw, you’re kidding me,” he said at last, with the sort of smile an operating room sees.

“All right. I’m kidding you.”

——–

From Farewell, My Lovely:

It was a nice walk if you liked grunting.

——

She was as cute as a washtub.

——

I sat down and rolled a cigarette around in my fingers and waited. She either knew something or she didn’t. If she knew anything, she either would tell me or she wouldn’t. It was that simple.

——

We went on staring at each other. It didn’t get either of us anywhere. We both had done too much of it in our lives to expect miracles.

—–

“That so?” Not a flicker of an eye. Not a movement of a muscle. I might as well have been talking to a turtle.

—–

I pushed the bell. It rang somewhere near by but nothing happened. I rang it again. The same nothing happened.

—–

Then she straightened the bills out on the desk and put one on top of the other and pushed them across. Very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten.

—–

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there.

Sorry, I got carried away there with the reading and the typing. Man, now I feel bad. I ripped off Chandler left and right (and I wasn’t alone, though we prefer to call it “influenced by”) when doing the Jigsaw Jones books. I’m still stealing from him, mostly because I think I ingested him, swallowed his books whole. If Chandler wasn’t dead, and I wasn’t broke, I’d send him a royalty check.

Nah, not really.

Note: If you enjoyed the selected quotes above, click here for more. And if you liked this appreciation — the third in a continuing series — just click the links for thoughts on other literary heroes, William Steig and Arnold Lobel.

One comment

  1. Peter Ricci says:

    Dear James,

    this is a great entry on Chandler! My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college student and writer who currently contributes to Too Shy to Stop, an upstart online magazine focused on culture and the arts.

    I found you entry, as it would turn out, while doing research for my own essay on Chandler. I focus on some of the more remarkable characteristics of Chandler’s work, especially his dialogue and use of symbolism.

    If you have the time, check it out! I’d love for you to read it and comment.

    http://tooshytostop.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/raymond-chandlers-chokehold-on-crime-fiction/

    Sincerely,

    Peter Ricci

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