Raymond Chandler was the Dulwich College schoolboy who grew up to be an oil executive, married a woman eighteen years older than himself (although she told him it was half that much) and created Philip Marlowe: not just one of the great fictional heroes of the twentieth century, but the very idea of the hero for the twentieth century. Here is Chandler’s own definition of the job:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man … He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him … If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
His moral and intellectual force is that he gets nothing but his fee, for which he will if he can protect the innocent, guard the helpless, and destroy the wicked, and the fact that he must do this while earning a meager living in a corrupt world is what makes his stand out.
Chandler had the rare literary gift of absolute moral seriousness without sententiousness. His books throb with rage against cruelty, injustice and the world’s hard-heartedness, but you never feel lectured to, because his purpose is not to change the world itself, but to change each of us who lives there. He also believed in the importance of art, but not in the self-importance of art:
I wish to God that Hollywood would stop trying to be significant, because when art is significant, it is always a by-product and more or less unintentional on the part of the writer.
Which is as good a definition as any of why Slumdog should win Best Picture next weekend, rather than Benjamin Button or The Reader.
He never aspired to be a “literary” writer. He believed in the value of popular culture, and that “all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten”:
Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, while not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man.
He worked hard to make his prose seem casual, to hide the craft that makes it flow. He resisted analysis of his own style, afraid of becoming too self-conscious. Occasionally, though, he gives us a clue to his approach.Here’s a Giles Coren-worthy letter to Edward Weeks of the Atlantic Monthly, whose proof-reader unwisely tampered with his work:
By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few dozen words of bar-room vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive … I think your proof reader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a pretty clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street in between.
All writers in all genres debate the balance between character, atmosphere and plot, but few balanced them as well as Chandler. Here’s another insight into his technique:
A long time ago when I was writing for the pulps I put in a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water”. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they care very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
Chandler wrote beautifully crafted genre fiction. There are heroes. There are villains. There is a dark, corrupting world. But every element is individual, every detail lovingly observed. Every character has his or her own clothes and voice and walk. His style has become famous, often imitated — “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” — but what his imitators neglect to add is the humanity, the particularity, the heart. And this is really why we need him, why he’s always worth re-reading. The world is in a mess, no question, and there’s no shortage of pundits saying, “this is where we went wrong”. But what Chandler shows us is: forget the “we”. If we blame “we” we get nowhere. The world can only be rebuilt by every individual being responsible, having a conscience, taking a stand. We blame individualism for getting us into this mess: maybe, just maybe, it’s a different kind of individualism that can get us out of it. Chandler once said that:
I wrote melodrama because when I looked around me it was the only kind of writing I saw that was relatively honest and yet was not trying to put over somebody’s party line. So now there are guys … telling me I have a social conscience. P.Marlowe has as much social conscience as a horse. He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter.
Or, even more succinctly:
The more men are ruled by law, the less they are ruled by honor.
I started this post calling Marlowe a great twentieth century hero. Perhaps he should be a great twenty-first one too.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.