I just finished rereading the three early Raymond Chandler novels in the fabulous Library of American edition of his work. All three show the economy of language and spot-on descriptions and metaphors that made Chandler famous and made him deserve to be. Take these two examples:”I don’t like port in hot weather, but it’s nice when they let you refuse it,” about the wealthy black widow of The High Window, or “This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead,” from The Big Sleep. I’m not the only one who notices the delightful metaphors in the work of Chandler and other thriller writers; in Steven King’s On Writing he cites two similes: “These favorites include ‘It was darker than a carload of assholes’ (George V. Higgins) and ‘I like a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief’ (Raymond Chandler).”
Chandler still resonates. Elmore Leonard is a direct descendant of Chandler, as are most latter-day crime writers, and it’s easy to see why he was influential. He took the laconic but powerful, reluctant and heroic hero of American myth—think Natty Bumppo plunked from the forest and put in the urban jungle with a great knowledge of the human animal rather than the great outdoors and you’re thinking of Philip Marlowe—and applied him to a grimy version of Sherlock Holmes. It also can’t be a coincidence that Marlowe is just an “e” short of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness.
Chandler isn’t the kind of crime writer Leonard briefly parodies through a character in The Hot Kid: “The sky hung as a shroud over the Bald Mountain Club, gray and unforgiving, a day that dawned with an indifferent beginning, but would end in violent deaths for twelve victims of the massacre.” We’re convinced we’re in better hands than that, as both writing and character show. Leonard’s would-be writer shows what other people do wrong, but it’s hard to define what Chandler gets right; perhaps the ease of his style, which is so swift and lean but packed with vivid, crucial details. Marlowe also makes himself likable by being a, if not the, good but tough guy in a world of deceitful and petty losers. Being good doesn’t mean being weak, and Marlowe is never the patsy, but that doesn’t make him forget his sense of decency, even if it is a decency relative that’s held against the standard of foolish and cops and the L.A. underworld that I suspect still exists today, with the same characters even if the circumstances are different. Marlowe is complex enough to be interesting, and, like the reader, more interested in the story itself and the characters he meets than where the bodies are buried. Chandler is too easy to forget—he doesn’t have the ad budget or product placement of the detective du jour—but even sixty years later he’s still a writer of power and verve.
Edit: I just posted a piece on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in which I discuss Chandler’s influence.