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Raymond Chandler: The Master of Nasty

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By Jonah Raskin

This article was originally published in Boom: A Journal of California.

Raymond Chandler relished finding names for his quirky characters, including Philip Marlowe, the pipe-smoking, chess-playing private eye -- a literary kinsman to Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett's solitary sleuth -- whom I first met in the pages of fiction as a teenager and whom I have known more than fifty years. Sometimes the names are dead giveaways about the morality or immorality of the character, sometimes they're opaque, but I've always found them intriguing and an open invitation to try to solve the mystery myself. In his first novel, "The Big Sleep" (1939), Chandler calls the bellicose gangster Eddie Mars, the smut peddler Arthur Gwynn Geiger, and the top cop Captain Cronjager. In "The High Window" (1942), Lois Magic is the femme fatale, Linda Conquest is a torch singer, and Leslie Murdoch is the effete son of a nasty heiress who has murdered her own husband and brainwashed Merle Davis (a wholesome girl from the Midwest and a victim of sexual assault) into thinking she's guilty of the crime. Nice people, Marlowe observes wryly.

Born in Chicago in 1888, near the end of the Victorian era, raised in England among elite Edwardians, and transplanted to Los Angeles in 1913, Chandler saw California through the eyes of an English eccentric. A veteran of World War I who was wounded in action in France, and a child of Prohibition and Depression America, he recognized that crime was an industry in both boom and bust times, and a rich field for a writer. Then, too, as a displaced person and an alien in the Southern California world of cars and freeways, among phony and lonely people, he tapped into a vast reservoir of mass discontent. In his seven novels, all of them set in and around Los Angeles, he depicted the world as a vile place inhabited by loathsome people. A cynic, he envisioned no way to escape nastiness -- certainly not by going to the movies, which, in his view, offered much the same trite boy-meets-girl story over and over again and trivialized psychological issues and social problems.

"Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him," Chandler wrote of L.A. He added that it was "a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness." Chandler loved and hated L.A. in much the same way that Balzac loved and hated mid-nineteenth-century Paris and F. Scott Fitzgerald loved and hated Jazz Age Manhattan. He learned a great deal about the craft of fiction by reading Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, too; then he created a style of his own that borrowed from the tabloid newspaper and the modernist poem, fusing "The Daily News" and "The Waste Land."

To a large extent, Raymond Chandler has gone out of fashion, his novels and stories unread by the Facebook Generation, and the movies based on the books also unknown to twenty-somethings. On the cusp of the 125th anniversary of his birth, he's a cult writer once again, as he was at the start of his career in the 1930s writing stories for "Black Mask", the premier crime magazine of the day, founded by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. In the 1940s, British intellectuals such as J.B. Priestley, Hollywood directors such as Howard Hawks, and lovers of down-and-dirty fiction discovered him and turned his paperbacks into best sellers. Today, a whole new school of Southern California detective fiction has pushed Chandler to the sidelines. The newcomers include Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly, the creator of Los Angeles Police Department Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.

In the company of Bosch and Haller, Chandler's Marlowe is an odd fellow. Granted, once upon a time he worked in the district attorney's office, and he knows cops he can turn to for information -- but Marlowe's not a company man nor a cog in a law enforcement machine, and he'd never work for the LAPD, just as Sam Spade would never accept a job, however well paid, with the San Francisco Police Department. For Hammett and Chandler, cops belong to the criminal injustice system. They never solve mysteries or apprehend killers, blackmailers, or thieves, although they're persistent and enduring and won't simply up and disappear. In "The Long Goodbye," Marlowe says of cops as a species, "No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."

Nasty sex, nasty money, nasty murder, and nasty cops are the volatile ingredients Chandler mixed together to cook up books that could be called noir fiction, detective stories, murder mysteries, or a combination of all three. Marlowe the detective is deep in the world of crime, corruption, and venality, as he recognizes at the end of "The Big Sleep": "Me. I was part of the nastiness now," he exclaims. In the pages of the novels, Marlowe isn't the virtuous character that Chandler described in his 1950 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," in which he wrote famously, "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Throughout the novels Marlowe is a tarnished knight and mean, too, though on the whole critics, readers, and biographers haven't noticed this fact.

Photo: Fraser Mummery.

Nasty place

"Hardboiled" fiction and "mystery story" were the two main terms that Chandler himself used to describe his work. In his fiction there are always multiple murders, always the dogged detective who empathizes with the little man and the little woman who haven't basked in Jazz Age glamour, haven't enjoyed steady employment in the Depression, and who aren't part of the California Dream. In the novels there's always a dark, ominous atmosphere, even though his detective, Marlowe, operates in the sunny "have-a-nice-day" world promoted by the greater Los Angeles tourist industry.

It doesn't really matter how the novels are labeled. They're works of literature, as critics and reviewers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Carolyn See have pointed out, and if anyone tries to force them into a strict genre, they just won't fit comfortably. Call them pulp fiction, too, if you will. They radiate real genius, especially the author's uncanny ability to write crisp dialogue that leaps off the page and to conjure up Southern California's mean streets, derelict office buildings, and transient hotels.

All creative writers, even Shakespeare, rely at times on literary formulae, Chandler pointed out. Writers of detective fiction were no exception. Moreover, they could also write truly original works that might change the world of fiction. Now and then, as Chandler recognized, a novel such as Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" (1930), created its own space, exploding nice, neat literary categories. "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase," Chandler wrote, "and dropped it into the alley." "The Big Sleep," too, exploded literary categories. As the contemporary novelist Paul Auster observed, "Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since."

But Chandler had something more specific than America in mind. True, the titles of the novels don't refer to exact geographical locations but rather to places, and to times, and to characters, as well, that could be found almost anywhere: the lady in the lake, the high window, the little sister, and the long goodbye. Much of the dramatic action occurs in a fictional town that Chandler calls "Bay City," where the police are rough and the residents are rich. We know, however, that Bay City is based on Santa Monica, a place he knew intimately well because he lived there for years.

In an early story, the femme fatale leaves L.A. for New York, but neither Marlowe nor Chandler follow her there; she might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. New York isn't on Chandler's map of the United States. Los Angeles is nearly his whole universe, and his L.A. is the epicenter of the dark, soulless civilization he saw sprawling everywhere. In 1950, when he looked back at his own early work and at the pulp fiction published in "Black Mask," he observed that it depicted "a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun."

Photo: Stefan Insam.

Nasty world

As a long-time aficionado of Chandler's hardboiled narratives who grew up reading his novels on the East Coast, I refused to allow Californians exclusive bragging rights to his work. As a lecturer in English in the 1980s, in a class I called "The Mysteries of College Composition," my students read Chandler, Hammett, and James M. Cain. They also wrote their own murder mysteries, making up crimes and criminals. Then, in the 1990s, as a professor of communication studies, I taught a film noir class in which students viewed the cinematic versions of Chandler's, Hammett's, and Cain's novels, as well as neo-noir classics such as "Chinatown," "Blade Runner," and "Body Heat," which rekindled my love of the noir form. In fact, I read so much noir fiction and saw so many noir films that the world came to look like a noir movie with femme fatales, fall guys, corrupt cops, and big-time crime bosses. Noir helped save me from becoming a hopeless romantic and a starry-eyed idealist. Raised in a liberal-left East Coast family, I imbibed progressive ideas and values about the perfectibility of society and human beings. I needed a healthy dose of Chandler's cynicism to balance my optimism, and I was delighted to learn that Dashiell Hammett, the author of "The Maltese Falcon," with its cast of back-stabbing characters, had been a member of the American Communist Party. Knowing the venal nature of the world and wanting to change it were compatible.

I've been collecting Chandler's books for nearly fifty years, but I only have one first edition. I prefer the cheap paperbacks with the lurid colors and the cartoon-like sketches of Philip Marlowe wearing a fedora and carrying a gun, or, as he calls it, "a gat." In the 1990s Vintage republished the novels in their "Crime/Black Lizard" series, but those covers are too arty and elegant for my taste. More recently, the Library of America issued an essential two-volume set of Chandler's complete works. Volume One includes early stories that were dress rehearsals for the novels, with catchy titles: "Red Wind," "King in Yellow," and "Trouble Is My Business." In one novel after another, Chandler went out of his way to look for trouble, leading his narrator and existentialist antihero into labyrinths of nastiness from which there appears to be no escape--especially when he's drugged and unconscious--or not until the proverbial last minute.

My two favorite Chandler novels, "The Big Sleep" and "The Long Goodbye," were both made into Hollywood movies, the first directed by Howard Hawks, the second by Robert Altman. Both were changed substantially, the venality toned down. Those who have only seen the movies don't realize that the novels paint indelible portraits of nasty California mobsters and nasty California monsters, most of them wealthy and white; the women, more often than men, play staring roles as consummate killers. Wealthy men, like General Sternwood in "The Big Sleep," hire gunmen to do the dirty work while they live vicariously and die quietly. Women commit the crimes themselves, and they don't get away with murder. Marlowe is often, though not always, a misogynist and a racist. Sometimes misogyny and racism are essential parts of his character and integral to the story, and sometimes he learns not to be a racist and a misogynist; he knows better.

Nasty people

Part of the pleasure of reading Chandler is watching him peel away the layers that surround seemingly virtuous characters. The plot is usually far too tangled for its own good, and at times it doesn't matter who has killed whom. The bodies just pile up. Hawks and Humphrey Bogart once telegrammed Chandler to ask him if a character was murdered or if he committed suicide. Chandler wired back saying he didn't know. Occasionally, Marlowe will explain who pulled the trigger and disposed of the corpse, but his explanations are the least entertaining aspects of his stories. The quirky characters -- gangsters, movie stars, rich playboys, and playgirls -- keep the reader turning pages.

Chandler maintains the suspense by moving his private eye or "peeper" as quickly and effortlessly as he can from luxurious mansions and swank swimming pools to smoky gambling dens, and by connecting the nasty rich to the nasty down-and-outers. Sexual tension mounts, sexual sparks fly, and Marlowe uses his wits more than his fists to fend off adversaries, whether they're male or female. There are as many fictional Southern California doctors, and especially insidious psychiatrists, as there are crafty lawyers and brutal cops. That's fitting, because Chandler was fascinated by the workings of the human mind -- the deceptions, the lies, and the psychological warfare that takes place in poisonous marriages and in toxic families such as the Wades in "The Long Goodbye," the Sternwoods in "The Big Sleep," and the Murdocks in "The High Window," who are covering up for an old, cold case of murder.

Photo: Emdot.

Nasty thrills

"The High Window," Chandler's third novel, holds a special place on my shelf because it was published in 1942, the year I was born. I didn't discover it until I was nineteen, and when I did I realized that the world that I saw all around me was the world according to Chandler. He invented it before I was old enough to recognize it.

At nineteen I was also reading Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce, intoxicated by "Swan's Way," "The Magic Mountain," and "Ulysses," but reading those books, which were assigned in literature classes at college, felt like entering distant cultures unlike my own.

With Chandler, I experienced something very different. Reading "The High Window" was like wandering in a world simultaneously familiar and strange. All of his novels were more than a tad shocking. The main characters belonged to nuclear families, but they didn't behave like the well-behaved members of the families I knew. In "The High Window," the innocent young girl is sexually molested by an older married man. In "The Big Sleep," Marlowe tells the beautiful daughter of a wealthy client, "kissing is nice, but your father didn't hire me to sleep with you," a line that Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson never would have uttered. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple wouldn't utter it, either.

In 1961, when I first read Chandler, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was yet to come. "Pillow Talk," with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, was the movie of the year the year I graduated from high school, and, though it offered pillows and talk, the dialogue and the plot weren't explicitly sexual. Chandler connected perverted sex to big money, organized crime, and patriarchal power, and when the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s arrived, his novels reached rebels such as myself and my contemporaries who were eager for sordid details about old money and old men who, Chandler explains in "The Long Goodbye," were "[a]ll Victorian dignity on the outside" and "inside...as ruthless as a Gestapo thug."

"The High Window" exudes sexuality from beginning to end. The characters also offer a steady stream of cruel comments about one another, as when Leslie Murdock tells Marlowe, "My mother hates to spend money. She thinks money is part of her skin." In another scene, Lois Magic, the novel's blonde beauty, advises one of her admirers, "Sit down and rest your sex appeal." There's something of Mae West's cheeky sexuality in Chandler's novels, and, while some of the quips about sex are humorous, in the spirit of West, the sexual overtones and undertones can be plain hurtful. Marlowe, the protagonist, is as hurtful as anyone else. Of Merle, the silly, sweet, innocent girl in "The High Window," who has been brainwashed into thinking she's a killer, he says, "She will probably turn out to be one of these acid-faced virgins that sit behind little desks in public libraries and stamp dates in books."

Marlowe can't resist making snide comments about women, much as Chandler can't help but make his women characters into far more seductive, dangerous, and often more lethal figures than his male characters (with the notable exception of Marlowe, the loner who never marries, who doesn't have a wife, a family, or even a long-lasting friend in the wilderness of L.A.).

Mrs. Eileen Wade, one of the last major women characters that Chandler created, is as vicious as any other in his oeuvre, and in many ways she's similar to Carmen Sternwood, one of the first female characters he created. They're both man-killers, insanely jealous, possessive, and neurotic. Not the butler, but the wife, daughter, or sister is often the killer, though it's the chauffer in an early story Chandler published in "Black Mask."

I stumbled on "The High Window" on my own and read it without the help or hindrance of literary critics and book reviewers. The cover of my copy of the novel sported a blurb by someone I had never heard of before, named Erle Stanley Gardner, who said, "Raymond Chandler is a star of the first magnitude." "The High Window" introduced me to noir, that elastic term coined by French critics to describe Hollywood's "B" movies that has been defined and redefined ever since the 1940s. Anita Monga, a well-versed film buff who regularly put on noir festivals at the Castro Theater in San Francisco while I was teaching noir, noted that noir films are often bleaker than gangster pictures, with no redemption at the end and with, as she put it, "an inner feeling of fatalism." (Noir and gangster novels and films overlap. "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell My Lovely" both include big time mobsters.) Monga also observed that the first wave of noir films from the 1930s and 1940s were often filmed at night, with dark scenes, ominous shadows, and odd camera angles that made the characters look literally bent and twisted.

I became so enthralled with Marlowe on the screen and in print that I came to think of him as a real person. I was disappointed when I read one of Chandler's letters (collected by biographer Frank MacShane) in which he insisted that Marlowe was a fictional character. "He is a creature of fantasy," he wrote. In the 1990s, when I met real detectives in San Francisco, I was delighted to hear that they learned about detective work by reading Chandler and by investigating crimes as doggedly and as fearlessly as his character Marlowe does. Of course, none of the real detectives I met talked about cases as candidly as Marlowe; he breaches confidentiality at every opportunity, while they didn't.

"The High Window" persuaded me that Chandler's dark view of the world was as fascinating as any intellectual's, including Karl Marx's, and it turned me for a time into a kind of noirish Marxist. In the pages of film magazines, I discovered that I wasn't the only one to appreciate noir as social criticism. Some of the grandest theorists and the most astute writers about noir, such as the director Paul Schrader and the American film critic Robert Warshow, pointed out that noir movies and books were eminently suited to present a subversive view of the bourgeois world and its dangerously seductive illusions.

The author himself seemed to think along Marxist lines, though he could also "crack wise" -- to borrow one of his own expressions -- in the manner of Groucho Marx. In "The Big Sleep," a beautiful, sexy, rich, young white woman cracks wise with Marlowe. "I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust," she says. "Who's he?" Marlowe asks. Proust, she tells him, is "a French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates." Of course, Chandler knew about Proust and his work. He assumed that readers would get his inside joke about the highbrow author of "In Search of Lost Time." He had a bookish chip on his shoulder and enjoyed taking shots at the big authors of his day who were acclaimed as the masters of something called literature. Chandler could be mean about fellow writers and about reviewers and critics.

There's more overt social criticism in "The Long Goodbye" than in any other Chandler novel. A millionaire named Mr. Potter sounds like the Marx of Das Kapital when he says, "There's a peculiar thing about money. In large quantities it tends to have a life of its own, even a conscience of its own. The power of money becomes very difficult to control." Potter also echoes the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen when he explains, "You can't have quality with mass production. You don't want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn't sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now."

Chandler clearly enjoyed hearing his own ideas emerge from the mouth of a millionaire. He also enjoyed the scene in which his district attorney, Bernie Ohls, tells Marlowe, "There ain't no clean way to make a hundred million bucks . . . Big money is big power, and big power gets used wrong. It's the system." When Marlowe replies, "You sound like a Red," Ohls quips, "I wouldn't know. I ain't been investigated yet." Published in 1953, in the aftermath of the Hollywood Ten, and before Senator Joseph McCarthy was tarnished on TV, "The Long Goodbye" captures the tenor of the anti-Communist crusade that infected the film industry and Washington, D.C. Though Chandler was never questioned about his political affiliations, he called the hearings on Reds in the film industry "the Hollywood show in Washington," and argued that "the Founding Fathers" did not intend that it be "conducted with microphones, flash bulbs, and moving picture cameras." He understood the power of the media to shape public opinion and to make or to break politicians. Working in the film industry provided him with an intimate glimpse into the links between public relations and mass marketing. In Hollywood, Chandler saw the future of an America in which images would have the magical power to manufacture conformity.

Photo: Collect Moments.

Hollywood nasty

Working as a screenwriter in Hollywood turned Raymond Chandler into a cynic about the movie studios. "They do not like to deal with honest men," he told his publisher, Alfred Knopf. Not surprisingly, he never cared for the cinematic versions of his novels. Hollywood cannibalized his plots, glamorized and sanitized his sinister women, and turned Marlowe, a lonely drunk and misogynist, into Marlowe the sentimental lover. Bogart filled the idealized Marlowe role admirably in Hawks's version of "The Big Sleep." Lauren Bacall was smart and sexy as the older, wiser, and more virtuous of the two rambunctious Sternwood sisters, and Hawks's happy ending made for happy audiences and big box office revenues.

Chandler made significant contributions to two major motion pictures, "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Strangers on a Train" (1951), but directors, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, rejected much of what he wrote, leaving him feeling bitter and resentful about making movies. His novels -- "The Big Sleep," "Farewell My Lovely," "The High Window," "Lady in the Lake," "The Little Sister," "The Long Goodbye," and "Playback" -- were too harsh, too real, and too noir even for the studios that made noir films. Over the last few years, I've returned to those seven novels again and again as welcome and necessary antidotes to the kind of cheap, facile optimism that's mass-produced in Hollywood -- and elsewhere in America -- that usually makes me feel more depressed than the noirest of noir novels and films. I'll take Marlowe over the current wave of detectives who have wives, girlfriends, husbands, and children, and who have a nice day even when it's cold and gray outside. Chandler's brand of California noir is so down and so dark that it's positively inspiring and elevating, and as timeless, too, as Nathaniel West's novel "The Day of the Locust," published in 1939, the same year as "The Big Sleep." At the conclusion of "The High Window," Marlowe enjoys playing chess with himself -- "beautiful cold remorseless chess, almost creepy in its silent implacability." At the end of the day, he is always alone, always eager for a new case, and always sharpening his razor-sharp mind.

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Top Image: Photograph courtesy of Néstor Galina.

About the Author

Jonah Raskin has lived and worked in northern California since 1975. He is Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Sonoma State University and the author of several books.
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