Unusually, I didn’t receive any books for Christmas just gone. It’s a welcome fallback present for anyone stuck for a gift for me, as I’ll pretty much read anything. Obviously I hadn’t been a good boy in 2014 and Santa left me empty of reading material. Having had a few days off work I was desperate for something to pass the hours, so I was forced to dig into my collection and dust off some old tomes.
Which, as often happens, led me to Raymond Chandler.
I’ve written a bit about the great man already on this blog, as he is a massive influence on me as both writer and man. This holiday was the first in ages that I have gone back and read any of his books straight through (this time it was Farewell My Lovely and my favourite, The Long Goodbye) and the pleasure I get from it is as strong as ever. I read his books with a smile on my face and every time I finish the desire to write is overwhelming.
I think the reason for this is that Chandler’s writing style seems so easy, so effortless. He was a master of writing dialogue and had a way with similes that will never be surpassed, in my opinion. Here’s a couple of my favourites, just for the hell of it:
‘He had a heart as big as one of Mae West’s hips’
‘He looked at me like a horse looking over a fence’
‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.’
(That last one not strictly speaking a simile but I can’t help but add it – one of my favourite pieces of writing anywhere, ever). What I love about all of these is not just their originality but how fun they are. I read work like this and it seems so easy to emulate, sending me rushing for the computer to try. Of course genius like this is impossible to replicate, which is probably why the vast hordes of pulp fiction that have sprung up since Chandler began in the 1930s has paled in comparison.
What’s most incredible to me is that Chandler began writing pulp almost to order. He only decided to get into writing fiction after losing his job with an oil company during the Great Depression (unfortunately his love of booze was also a contributory factor). He wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner:
I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane…I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good.
I find it extraordinary that a man so talented who has become an all-time literary great started essentially plagiarising someone else’s work. But his writing method, particularly in the early years, was not one of free-flowing imagination. A number of his novels were almost completely rewritten and the first of them, The Big Sleep was an amalgamation of earlier, published short stories.
His expert use of dialogue can be found also in his screenplays, most notably in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I remember a friend of my father’s recommending the film to me as a teenager and I sat through it, spellbound. The way Chandler ramps up the tension scene by scene is thrilling, and the chemistry between the two leads is mostly underpinned by the superb dialogue that Chandler wrote.
The one that really hit me hard though was The Long Goodbye. I think the opening few pages where we first meet Terry Lennox and his showpiece wife are among the finest every written. Full of humour, pitch-perfect dialogue, expertly drawn characters and suspense. The plot is incredibly complex from then on but Chandler never loses grip on it, even though the novel runs to nearly 250,000 words. His portrayal of the alcoholic Roger Wade is utterly convincing (based in part on Chandler himself) and flavoured with a hint of sadness that sends chills through me on every reading. In his later years Chandler was an unhappy guy, crippled by alcoholism and the failing health and subsequent death of his wife and this sense of sorrow really comes through in the novel. I really believe it’s a masterpiece and that Phillip Marlowe remains the quintessential private eye and spawn of a whole new genre.