Raymond Chandler’s Detective Novels Endure Because Of Their Flaws

Raymond Chandler’s Detective Novels Endure Because Of Their Flaws

A new annotated edition of Chandler's classic book 'The Big Sleep,' is a good opportunity to reexamine the atmosphere and attitudes surrounding famed detective Philip Marlowe.
Ron Capshaw
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In a 1945 essay denigrating hard-boiled fiction, Edmund Wilson, America’s premiere man of letters in the 1940s, singled out Raymond Chandler for grudging praise. Dismissing the novels of Dashiell Hammett (a writer Chandler cited as a mentor) as little more than a comic strip, Wilson saw Chandler’s value as atmospheric: “[It] is not simply a question of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms.”

Chandler, who regarded Wilson as the kind of snobbish intellectual he despised, agreed. When he was in hot demand as a screenwriter after co-writing the script for Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder and was nominated for an Oscar, Chandler was clear-eyed about the reason studios hired him. He knew it was because of the atmosphere he gave screenplays.

This view of Chandler the stylist has traveled well. Robert Towne cited Chandler’s description of California as the inspiration for his Academy Award-winning script for the neo-noir film Chinatown. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher summoned Chandler when they made the future-noir Blade Runner, with its burn-out, alcoholic detective played by Harrison Ford amidst a rain and pollution-drenched Los Angeles.

The Prejudices of His Day

The editors of the Black Lizard’s new annotated edition of The Big Sleep also regard Chandler in the same way. Chandler was not crazy about The Big Sleep (he thought he ran his trademark similes into the ground). Nevertheless, the co-editors of this annotated edition, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto, academics who teach courses in the history of California, regard the novel as a masterpiece. Chandler, they assert, was one of the best historians of California.

The more politically correct academics see no value in Chandler and dismiss him and his protagonist Philip Marlowe as homophobic and misogynist. To a certain extent, this is valid.

Chandler followed the prejudices of his day when dealing with gay characters (in The Big Sleep he called homosexuals “queens” and “fags). But unlike other mystery novelists such as Jim Thompson or James Ellroy today, Chandler didn’t follow the noir theme of a good, honest man seduced and then brought down by a femme fatale.

Instead Marlowe mooned over the “magnificent thighs” and “dreamy” eyes of male characters. By contrast, his female characters were perverted and insane, like the certifiable nymphomaniac Carmen Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” who, when angered, hissed through her animal-like teeth.

Chandler went overboard regarding the relationship between Marlowe and Sternwood. When Chandler threw her nude body out of his bed, he tore the sheets apart because it was where her “corrupt body” lay.

Critics then and now have also characterized Chandler’s plots as confusing. Chandler himself had no interest in plotting. But read carefully. His novels did have a plot, and it was a pioneering one.

Throughout almost all of the novels, Marlowe, in pursuing the task he was hired for, discovers along the way a much bigger crime. In The Big Sleep, Chandler was hired to muscle a blackmailer away from the Sternwood family. But he learns what actually happened to the father’s best friend, Rusty Reagan. Reagan didn’t run off. He—spoiler alert—was murdered by the spurned Carmen.

No Sacred Cows

Interestingly, the politically correct of Chandler’s day, the American Communist Party, claimed Chandler as an authentic proletarian novelist. In response, Chandler revealed himself to be more politically astute than the dutiful Stalinist Dashiell Hammett. In a series of excellent letters—Chandler was as good at correspondence as he was with fiction—he informed the left that Marlowe “has the social conscience of a horse.” Marlowe, Chandler wrote didn’t hate the “rich because they take baths.” He hated them because they were “phony.”

Politically, Chandler had no sacred cows. He denounced J.Edgar Hoover as inept and dangerous. He bashed the Catholic Church for having “fascist” tendencies. Yet he also was highly critical of Communism. Indeed, in his estimation, Catholicism came off better. Unlike Communists, they were capable of “internal dissent,” and in a typically pithy passage, he wrote that priests didn’t “shoot you in the back of the head for being 48 hours behind the Party line.”

Chandler was equally critical of other writers. For a time, he regarded Hemingway as the greatest novelist in America. But he lamented Hemingway’s poor performance in the late 1940s. James M. Cain, the author of the novel, Double Indemnity, Chandler adapted for the screen, was little more than a pornographer.

He did, however, praise some writers. For Chandler, Somerset Maughm set the gold standard for spy novels. And he was particularly admiring of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and Chandler make an interesting comparison. Although Fitzgerald had a much more rosey-eyed view of the rich than Chandler, both were capable of poetic atmosphere.

Indeed, in passages like the conclusion of The Big Sleep, Chandler matched any of the imperishable descriptions of The Great Gatsby:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill. You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

The late Christopher Hitchens once stated that Ian Fleming endured not in spite of his perversions and hatreds—sadomasochism, misogyny—but because of them. The same has happened with Chandler. When critics praise his ability to describe California, he did so with all of blemishes of the 1940s intact.

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