milestones in american pulp: the style of raymond chandler

Why Raymond Chandler still reads so well, after all these years 

What is it about Raymond Chandler? Writers as disparate as W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Ian Fleming and Norman Mailer all praised him, and he was much beloved by intellectuals as dauntingly perceptive as Iris Murdoch and John Bayley.

Maybe the real question one should ask is: what is it about Raymond Chandler’s writing that lets it age so well? On balance, I think it must be the clean, crisp freshness of his prose, the startling vividness of his metaphors—Moose Malloy is described as looking as inconspicuous as a tarantula on angel food”—which is also a nice allusion to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, in which a spider emerges from Miss Havesham’s wedding cake, i.e., the poisonous and the ) and the muted music of his best passages:
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?  
In terms of assonance that passage scans as “w, y, w (“once”), y, w, d, i, d, i, t, t, h, h.”  And you can parse its rhythms just as easily as the iambic pentameters of any Elizabethan writer.
After 70 or so years, Chandler’s descriptive passages, the set pieces he inserted throughout his fiction, and especially his scene-openers still make for gripping, memorable writing. The famous opening of his short story “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer in a cocktail lounge.
Or that elegiac tone that suffuses much of his writing—like the last chapter of Farewell, My Lovely:   

It took over three months to find Velma. They wouldn’t believe Grayle didn’t know where she was and hadn’t helped her get away. So every cop and newshawk in the country looked in all the places where money might be hidng her. And money wasn’t hiding her at all. Although the way she hid was pretty obvious once it was found out.
One night a Baltimore detective with a camera eye as rare as a pink zebra wandered into a night club and listened to the band and looked at a handsome black-haired, black browed torcher who could sing as if she meant it. Something in her face struck a chord and the chord went on vibrating.
He went back to Headquarters and got out the Wanted file and started through the pile of readers. When he came to the one he wanted he looked at it a long time. Then he straightened his straw hat on his head and went back to the night club and got hold of the manager. They went back to the dressing rooms behind the shell and the manager knocked on one of the doors. It wasn’t locked. The dick pushed the manager aside and went in and locked it.
He must have smelled marihuana because she was smoking it, but he didn’t pay any attention then. She was sitting in front of a triple mirror, studying the roots of her hair and eyebrows. They were her own eyebrows. The dick stepped across the room smiling and handed her the reader.
She must have looked at the face on the reader almost as long as the dick had down at Headquarters. There was a lot to think about while she was looking at it. The dick sat down and crossed his legs and lit a cigarette. He had a good eye, but he had over-specialized. He didn’t know enough about women.
Finally she laughed a little and said: “You’re a smart lad, copper. I thought I had a voice that would be remembered. A friend recognized me by it once, just hearing it on the radio. But I’ve been singing with this band for a month—twice a week on a network—and nobody gave it a thought.”
“I never heard the voice,” the dick said and went on smiling.
She said: “I suppose we can’t make a deal on this. You know, there’s a lot in it, if it’s handled right.”
“Not with me,” the dick said. “Sorry.”
“Let’s go then,” she said and stood up and grabbed up her bag and got her coat from a hanger. She went over to him holding the coat out so he could help her into it. He stood up and held it for her like a gentleman.
She turned and slipped a gun out of her bag and shot him three times through the coat he was holding.
She had two bullets left in the gun when they crashed the door. They got halfway across the room before she used them. She used them both, but the second shot must have been pure reflex. They caught her before she hit the floor, but her head was already hanging by a rag.
“The dick lived until the next day,” Randall said, telling me about it. “He talked when he could. That’s how we have the dope. I can’t understand him being so careless, unless he really was thinking of letting her talk him into a deal of some kind. That would clutter up his mind. But I don’t like to think that, of course.”
I said I supposed that was so.   
“Shot herself clean through the heart—twice,” Randall said. “And I’ve heard experts on the stand say that’s impossible, knowing all the time myself that it was. And you know something else?”
“She was stupid to shoot that dick. We’d never have convicted her, not with her looks and money and the persecution story these high-priced guys would build up. Poor little girl from a dive climbs to be wife of rich man and the vultures that used to know her won’t let her alone. That sort of thing. Hell, Rennenkamp would have half a dozen crummy old burlesque dames in court to sob that they’d gone blackmailed her for years, and in a way that you pin anything on them but the jury would go for it. She did a smart thing to run off on her own and leave Grayle out of it, but it would have been smarter to have come home when she was caught.”
“Oh you believe now that she left Grayle out of it,” I said.
He nodded. I said: “Do you think she had any particular reason for that?”
He stared at me. “I’ll go for it, whatever it is.”
“She was a killer,” I said. “But so was Malloy. And he was a long way from being all rat. Maybe that Baltimore dick wasn’t so pure as the record shows. Maybe she saw a chance—not to get away—she was tired of dodging by that time—but to give a break to the only man who had ever really given her one.”
Randall stared at me with his mouth open and his eyes unconvinced.
“Hell, she didn’t have to shoot a cop to do that,” he said.
“I’m not saying she was a saint or even a halfway nice girl. Not ever. She wouldn’t kill herself until she was cornered. But what she did and the way she did it, kept her from coming back here for trial. Think that over. And who would that trial hurt most? Who would be least able to bear it? And win, lose or draw, who would pay the biggest price for the show? An old man who had loved not wisely, but too well.”
Randall said sharply: “That’s just sentimental.”
“Sure. It sounded like that when I said it. Probably all a mistake anyway. So long. Did my pink bug ever get back up here?”
He didn’t know what I was talking about.
I rode down to the street floor and went out on the steps of the City Hall. It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way—but not as far as Velma had gone.

Finally, and always, there’s Chandler’s overarching, all-informing literary motiff: Marlowe as the lone, questing knight:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.

Marlowe the knight-errant is the agent and exemplar of a special kind of sentimentality, as necessitatd by Chandler’s casting of Marlowe as a “verray parfit gentil knight”as the latest successor in a character lineage begun by the Gawain poet, taken up by Chaucer and refined by Spenser:
On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.
— from Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)


             Adios, Muñeca

milestones in american pulp: raymond chandler, master of the american demotic

The ending of Chandle’s The Big Sleep:

I went quickly away from her down the room and out and down the tiled staircase to the front hall. I didn’t see anybody when I left. I found my hat alone this time. Outside, the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.


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. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.


On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.


— from Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)