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Raymond Chandler : booze, babes & bullets

Lawrence Russell | culturecourt.com

Raymond Chandler | Black Mask | Trouble Is My Business | The Simple Art of Murder | Red Wind | The Adventures of Philip Marlowe radio | The Big Sleep | Double Indemnity screenplay | The Blue Dahlia | Farewell My Lovely | The High Window | The Lady in the Lake | The Little Sister | The Long Goodbye | Playback | Poodle Springs | My Friend Luco | Ruth Ellis | Collected Letters

§ Chandler: tough guy, huh. Served in the Canadian Army, first World War, made Sergeant, and when most of his unit was wiped out by machine-gun fire, he was shipped back to England and trained as a pilot. But the war ended before he was needed and he eventually made his way back to Los Angeles. So, although he never wrote about the war directly in his fiction, why yes, you can assume he was pretty tough.

But he was soft on women, wasn't he? Bit of a Sir Lancelot complex, see it in his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939). His alter-ego Philip Marlowe P.I. allows the nympho thumb-sucking killer Carmen Sternwood to walk free even after she tries to shoot him down in the old oil patch that made her daddy's fortune. Fiction, you say. Means nothing.

Well, how about his letter to the Evening Standard (London, June 30, 1955) about the Ruth Ellis hanging? Ellis was a model and an after-hours club hostess who became the mistress of a young racing car driver, an upper-class public school wastrel named David Blakely. She shot him dead in the street outside a Hampstead pub, drunk, stoned, distraught with a jealous passion brought on by Blakely's abandonment and engagement to another woman. Chandler wrote:

'I have been tormented for a week at the idea that a highly civilized people should put a rope around the neck of Ruth Ellis and drop her through a trap and break her neck. I could perhaps understand the hanging of a woman for bestial crime like a multiple poisoning, an axe murder (a la Lizzie Borden) or a baby farm operator killing her charges, but this was a crime of passion under considerable provocation. No other country in the world would hang this woman.

In France she would get off with a light sentence or none. In America it would be first or second degree manslaughter and she would be out of prison within three to seven years....'

Ellis was hanged of course but was the last woman hanged in Britain. July 13, 1955, Holloway Prison. Fast. No mercy, despite the vast public sympathy and the heart-felt endorsement of a famous crime novelist, Raymond Chandler. The whole sordid story was made into the excellent 1985 film Dance With A Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis. See it... or see it again. Good stuff.

Chandler, a dual US-UK citizen, was hanging out in London, soaking up some of his UK royalties while drinking heavily and grieving the death of his wife Cissy, an event he was never able to get over. Cissy, a former model and wife of a concert pianist, was twenty years older than Chandler, although her marriage certificate (1923) to Chandler made it ten. She was in poor health for a long time before her death in 1953, the year before his novel The Long Goodbye was published, so you wonder if the title is an expression of his slow farewell to his wife as much as an adios to the shape-shifting Terry Lennox, war hero, gigolo, crypto-gangster, fugitive, and fellow alcoholic. Well, was Philip Marlowe alcoholic? He certainly drank enough, smoked enough, an oral compulsive like Chandler himself... you might say, could say.

Raymond Chandler & his cat

Black Mask

'I wrote my best book (The Long Goodbye) in the agony of that knowledge (that Cissy was dying) and yet I wrote it' (letter)

Complex stuff... and you might be accused of the 'biographical fallacy'. Yet Chandler reads like a Freudian code book, his stories colored with an emotional patina of violence, sex and social exile, a world he certainly absorbed. Marlowe was a loner by choice, seemingly, but Chandler himself had no such choice. He was educated for it by the system and by necessity. Chandler's mother, abandoned by her American husband, took Ray back to her family home in Waterford, Ireland, for a while before her brother, a lawyer, spotted him for a public school education at Dulwich College, London. Dulwich gave the boy a great education in the classics. Eventually Chandler knew some Latin and Greek, could write and speak French and German. And afterwards he stayed close to his mother. Catholic Irish, you say. No -- the family was Quaker.

Not that Chandler was religious, and if he ever was, it all slipped away in the trenches of WW 1.

When he gave up his job as a civil servant in the British Admiralty, then his mediocre career as a London journalist, then headed back to the States on a loan provided by his Waterford uncle, it wasn't long before he had his mother join him. When the time came, hey, no surprise that she didn't approve of Cissy, a married woman old enough to be her son's mother... well, you get the picture.

"Let's take a walk in the moonlight'

Chandler's Sir Lancelot motif is going full-throttle in his first published story, Blackmailers Don't Shoot (Black Mask, 1933), an episodic pulp classic that takes place almost exclusively at night. A movie star called Rhonda Farr is blackmailed, then kidnapped by a gang led or enabled by her own lawyer, an L.A. socialite by the name of Atkinson, his greedy disposition signalled by a fat belly and an orange blossom mansion on a hill. The P.I. is called 'Mallory' and you might as well call him Marlowe, as they dress the same (powder blue suit, black shoes, black hair)... talk the same, walk the same, get worked by dames, yet manage to stay one step ahead of them, the cops, the hoods, the grave and anyone or anything else that gets between them and their moral destination.

"What are you back where you live, darling? One of those hoods they call private dicks?" purrs Rhonda Farr.

The dialogue of foreplay, deception, and death by orgasm. The promiscuity of the recently devout. Yet Chandler's "private dick" seldom yields -- you recall his expulsion of the naked Carmen Sternwood from Marlowe's bed (The Big Sleep) -- so you're left wondering, impotency or self-discipline? The Hays Code might've been designed for Hollywood, yet it was a reflection of the community standards of the era, just like Prohibition. These dynamos of corruption were starting to run slow when Chandler wrote his first fiction in the thirties, although the art of innuendo remained, that ancient means of bypassing censorship. Circle the subject and close in. No training required -- you're born with it, men and women circling, signalling. And it's not always about love.

Was Rhonda Farr really being blackmailed? Did four men -- including her former lover -- all die in the crossfire due to her conniving, her desire for some publicity? She with the violet eyes and the white wig and 'the sort of skin an old rake dreams of.'

Here, as in all his Marlowe stories, the smell of sadomasochism is in the air, like a narcotic gas emitted by the characters, coarsened by nicotine and sweat, whisky and spittle. It's an urban Western, replete with heavy drinking, gunfights, double-crosses and a trophy woman who probably isn't worth the trouble as, in the end, she's a heartless wench with her own agenda. And here, as in all his Marlowe stories, it's a use-or-be-used world, where sentimentality is for suckers and bullets speak the truth.

Pulp rubbish, porno violence? Not really. You can sense the self-irony in the narrative, in this careless passage between life and death. The famous Chandler descriptive touch is there, beautiful in its back-lit detail:

'The car went out into the sea of lights, rolled east a short way, then turned south down the long slope. The lights of the city were an endless glittering sheet. Neon signs glowed and flashed. The languid ray of a searchlight prodded about among the high faint clouds.'

Chandler writes in semi-tone, as if story-boarding for the comics, a sort of pop-art imagery for the aesthetically blind. It's easy on the eyes, the mind. The beauty is in the precision, the modernism, the atmospherics... these interludes of relaxed beauty and flash violence. What is Hollywood but a light-show of shadow and desire? Somehow you see it, feel it, as these desperados drive in Cadillac dreams to and fro in the L.A. moonlight. The hoods, the cops, and the P.I. who has characteristics of all his adversaries, glides between the vigilante and the outlaw, the 2nd Amendment and the Codex Vaticanus.

The Black Mask magazine pulp formula is here: light on the adjectives, adverbs, figures... big on characters, dramatics, seamless action, duplicity and death. A hot scene is more important than plot, corpses more than prisoners. This was something Chandler was certainly familiar with from his experience in trench warfare. As he noted in a letter to someone, when the Hindenburg Line collapsed in 1918 and the Allies went on a rapid advance, it was easier to shoot surrendering Germans than have them behind you. Dead men pose no risk.

Raymond Chandler Black Mask cover

Chandler: Trouble Is My Business

"His eyes measured me for a coffin"

It's always useful to look at the first work and the last of any writer to see obsession, the root clock of consciousness. Chandler's early pulp magazine stories from the 1930's are by no means all good, although some are, such as Nevada Gas, The King in Yellow, Spanish Blood et al. The long story -- novella or novelette, if you prefer -- Red Wind (1938) is very good, and in terms of aesthetic symmetry, might be the best long narrative he wrote.

It starts:

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 at a cocktail lounge.

I was getting one in a flossy new place across the street from the apartment house where I lived. It had been open about a week and it wasn't doing any business. The kid behind the bar was in his early twenties and looked as if he had never had a drink in his life.

There was only one other customer, a souse on a bar stool with his back to the door. He had a pile of dimes stacked neatly in front of him, about two dollars' worth. He was drinking straight rye in small glasses and he was all by himself in a world of his own.

I sat farther along the bar and got my glass of beer and said: "You sure cut the clouds off them, buddy. I will say that for you."

"We just opened up," the kid said. "We got to build up trade. Been in before, haven't you, mister?"
"Live around here?"
"In the Berglund Apartments across the street," I said. "And the name is Philip Marlowe."

This is an urban Western by any other name: a hot desert wind, a saloon, hard drinkers, a stranger enters, inquires about a dame, gets shot for his trouble, and the shooter rides off into the dust in the victim's car. Minimalist narrative, heavy atmosphere, fast guns, a string of pearls, a bent cop and a dame to die for... and, of course Philip Marlowe, who works out his problems by playing chess against himself.

The action is rapid, the unities obeyed. No wonder this story was chosen as the lead-off for the new Marlowe NBC radio drama series, starring Van Heflin. Well, the series didn't last long -- Chandler himself thought Van Heflin was "flat" and the production likewise. The series was relaunched by CBS the following year, 1948, as 'The Adventures of Philip Marlowe', this time with Gerald Mohr in the lead. Again, the series started off with Red Wind, although the remainder of the scripts were originals by various writers. Although Chandler had no editorial say about these scripts, he did offer the production team some advice:

"The point about Marlowe is to remember is that he is a first-person character" | "Don't have Marlowe say things merely to score off the other characters" | "If you use similes, try and make them extravagant and original"

This last point about similes is interesting as Chandler said that Black Mask didn't like similes because "they interrupted the action" but that he was always trying to subvert that rule. His novels are of course loaded with similes (or Marlowisms) which give not only poetic texture but define the Chandler narrative style. To imagine the Marlowe narrative without them would be an exercise in emasculation. There's a transformative lyricism to a Chandler figure -- for example, speaking about his novel Little Sister (1949), he said, "The plot creaks like a broken shutter in an October wind." Well, how bad a plot is that? You don't know, but enjoy the beauty of the humour nonetheless.

Chandler was ok with Gerald Mohr as Marlowe and "moderately satisfied" with the CBS productions, although by Script 16 he was complaining that the Marlowe series has gone soft, that even old ladies liked it now. 'Sadistic? This one is about as sadistic as a frosted marshmallow sundae.' (letter) Mohr certainly had the authoritative baritone voice for the continuously ironic tough guy Philip Marlowe, the urgent agent on the edge of fear. Relaxed? You don't relax when living on the San Andreas fault, have the intuition of an insomniac dog. 28 minute episodes of audio montage, drama for the late night riders, pure police band radio.

[listen to it here »»» ]

"Goddam, thees hot wind make me dry like the ashes of love," the Russian girl said bitterly.

Scripting Red Wind would've been easy, as the story reads like a script, the narrative ratcheted down to terse Marlowe monologues bridging rapido dialogues. The vernacular is marvellous, fixing the characters and their L.A. setting like a fresco found on a back alley wall. And the wind, the hot dehydrating wind, is a metaphor for whatever you want: an assassin, a corrupt cop, a Russian brunette, a city on the edge of ruin, fire, or just Nature messing with people's heads. It's like Maxwell Anderson's Key Largo, where the hurricane makes the people small, even the big-time criminals and their Greek tragedies and dreams of life beyond death.

"There's a hell of a lot of coincidence in all this business," the big man said.
"It's the hot wind," I grinned. "Everybody's screwy tonight."

The deep cynicism of the ending -- when you get there -- is basic Chandler. But as plots go, this is one of his best, where the sociology moves into a psychological lyricism. A dame, her dead lover, Marlowe and "the ashes of love."

Chandler's detailing of his characters -- especially the females -- is so fastidious in terms of style and animal mechanics you'd think he was fashion designer. You know his wife Cissy was a former model, so quite possibly Chandler took time to study fashion magazines, take his visuals from there. Men are usually blind to couture, see only shape, their fantasies pre-ordained. But Chandler writes ad copy:

'She had brown wavy hair under a wide-brimmed straw hat with a velvet band and loose bow. She had wide blue eyes and eyelashes that didn't quite reach her chin. She wore a blue dress that might have been crêpe silk, simple in lines but not missing any curves. Over it she wore what might have been a print bolero jacket.'

This is Lola Barsaly who rides in a black Cadillac coupe and packs a pearl-handled automatic in her purse -- an all-American mid-century dame who needs rescued badly because, like Lady Windemere, she's got a secret that blackmailers can love. It's this visual modernism that makes Chandler's writing so attractive... the brevity, the flash, the mix of fantasy and realism, the world of sexual telepathy and fatal accidents. Even Philip Marlowe himself is like an ad for a cigarette brand conceptualized around Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan dramatist. Christopher M. was a wild and dangerous hombre, a spy as well as a writer, died young, murdered, supposedly, although some people believe he faked his death, continued on as William Shakespeare. The dates fit, so does the writing, the blank verse and the plays of men driven mad by women, power and politics.

One Marlowe fits all, eh?

Raymond Chandler: Red Wind

Chandler: radio drama

Chandler BBC radio

Chandler's stories are all episodic -- could be seven scenes (or Chapters) like The Red Wind (1938) or twelve like Nevada Gas (1935), an evil tale about an evil gangster who has a big saloon where the back seat can sealed off as a gas chamber. No one forgives anybody in this one except the P.I. DeRuse, a gambler with a Mauser in an ankle holder. His chick cheats on him with a double-crossing nightclub hood called Dial but hey, all's fair in love and war, and Dial gets gunned anyway. The central motif of the gas limo works as an ironic play on the State of Nevada's means of capital punishment, i.e. death by cyanide gas. Hoods gassing hoods seems fitting. Chandler was against capital punishment in general -- especially for women -- although, as his stories show, some people deserve to die because of their crimes.

The King in Yellow (1938) is nine scenes about a hotel security man and his run-in with a jazz musician who dresses in yellow and parties with his groupies until he implodes. The title is a lift from the Robert W. Chambers (1895) 'The King in Yellow', a play that drives all who read it mad. When Steve Grayce, the house dick finds King Leopardi lying dead in faux yellow silk pyjamas, he says, "The King in Yellow. I read a book with that title once...." It's unlikely that Leopardi read it, though, so there's no real internal metaphor at work here, just a motif, not an opera. Leopardi -- the familiar Faustian artist, beautiful music, ugly personality. Murdered, of course. Live like a king, die like a bug. There's a "plot" behind it all, although it's messy, like most of these Black Mask stories. Chandler admitted he was "fundamentally uninterested in plot", blamed himself for not planing far enough ahead when writing. To some extent it was a problem of having too many murders in too short a distance, which then leaves the finale expected, regardless of how unexpected the unmasking might be.

These 'mini-novels' -- collected under various titles such as The Simple Art of Murder or Trouble Is My Business -- suffer from a density of violence that's less of a problem in the long narratives, the Marlowe novels, starting with The Big Sleep (1939) and ending with The Long Goodbye (1953) (or, if you prefer, the unfinished novel Poodle Springs that Chandler was working on up until his death in 1959). In fact, as has been noted by others, certain scenes and characters from the Black Mask stories were used again in the novels, most obviously Killer In The Rain, which provided a large and important part of the plot in The Big Sleep. The names were changed, details here and there, but essentially Killer In The Rain becomes the Carmen Sternwood smut photo blackmail gambit -- same rich girl, same bookshop sleaze, same love-struck chauffeur, same blackmailers in the wings.

'the love story and the detective story cannot exist, not only in the same book -- one might almost say in the same culture' (Chandler)

Is the Big Sleep really Chandler's first masterpiece... or even a masterpiece at all? The subject has been distorted by the Bogart-Bacall myth, and the rendering of the movie version as a bad boy-bad girl romance. The ending of the novel is jettisoned, the females airbrushed, and goodness prevails. This is not to say that Bogart doesn't do a good job as Marlowe -- as Chandler himself said, all Bogart had to do was enter a room to dominate a scene -- and that Bacall isn't good in her role as an accomplished flirt and late night gambler. They are good, but the script they follow is less about the grim story of moral corruption presented in the novel than a Hollywood fantasy finessed for a soft-hearted public. The look and the feel of the film is great, as you would expect from an accomplished director like Howard Hawks, so it might be a bit of a surprise to learn that it was scripted by the illustrious William Faulkner and a young Leigh Brackett ('Queen of the Space Opera'). Of course the narrative had to be abridged to fit the rhythm of a two hour movie and the era was more comfortable with a male villain (Eddie Mars) than a killer slut (Carmen Sternwood). Interestingly, Chandler thought Martha Vickers as Carmen stole the female lead from Bacall as Vivian, but as the majority of her scenes were cut in the final edit, her outstanding performance went by the board.

'I came out at the fourth floor sniffing for air. The hallway had the same dirty spittoon and frayed mat, the same mustard walls, the same memories of low tide'

The novel made no impact at all when first published, and it was only later when it was issued as a paperback that it gained traction. The critics ignored it -- Chandler was from the crime fiction ghetto. The opening, where Marlowe goes to the Sternwood estate to receive his instructions is very good (and is one sequence the film ' faithfully followed) and the ending in the derelict oil field is likewise good. This ending has a Gothic feel to it, re-jigged for the modern era of industrial wealth and its consequence. The character of Carmen -- about as likeable as Lucretia Borgia -- contains a secret within a secret, is actually driving the action even when she isn't around. Marlowe, hired to solve one problem, actually exposes a worse one more or less inadvertently because of his fascination with big sister Vivian. Carmen's erotic photos and Vivian's gambling are racy occupations in racy times, but aren't the real issue. It's a clever plot, acted out in the noir shades of wind, fog and rain. Thunder too. Perhaps the middle stanza is padded out a bit too much with story recaps -- i.e. when Marlowe visits the Bureau of Missing Persons -- which slow the action, might cause a few readers to skip on (or drop out altogether). But the narrative circularity is impressive.

'Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.'

While you couldn't call it supernatural, the resolving action has a strange feel to it, as if Marlowe has been searching for his own killer, not the missing husband of the woman he almost loves. It's not a happy ending, not a Hollywood ending, but it is Hollywood and it is an ending.

'In Hollywood, they destroy the link between the writer and his subconscious' (Chandler... after he'd had enough)

Chandler made the big time in 1944 when Paramount Pictures phoned and asked him to write the script for Billy Wilder's production of the James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity. Chandler worked with Wilder on vamping Cain's photo-dialogue, making it more aural (rather than visual) to suit the L.A. vernacular. In a letter to Cain, Chandler explained why he did what he did; it's a polite letter, although it probably rankled Cain to be versed in the methods of the Hollywood screen writer. It was a successful production led by three A-list actors: Fred McMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. Today Double Indemnity is seen as the Holy Grail of the Hollywood film noir. In hind-sight, you can see a lot of Philip Marlowe in the love chump insurance salesman Walter Neff, and his sexual manipulation into committing a murder on behalf of the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. With a different ending, you could see Neff as Marlowe before Marlowe becomes a shamus.

Due to the success of Double Indemnity, Chandler soon got other gigs as a screenwriter, and why not? He was a natural "scenic" writer, with or without dialogue. And his dialogue was superb move-the-action-without-exposition stuff. He knew underworld jargon, he knew business speak, he knew cop talk, he knew all manner of men and unlike many male writers, he knew women well enough that women believed his female characters. And he knew violence, could choreograph it like a drill sergeant.

But like most fiction writers, he had trouble with the studio system, and the contractual requirement that he be on the lot, in the office to be on hand for the director or the producer or whoever needed him. Writers are by necessity loners. They don't work well on the assembly line. Chandler had disagreements with Wilder, insisted on working from home. He had the same problems with Alfred Hitchcock, whom he didn't respect at all, called him "a fat bastard". The film they were working on was Strangers On A Train (1949), from the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Although the film remains popular today and is frequently cited as one of Hitchcock's best, Chandler thought the plot was highly improbable, based on a swap murder motif that would never happen in reality. Yet so much of the basic mystery novel is based on game-play the public seemed to go along with it all, despite this and a very flat ending. Chandler disliked Hitchcock's penchant for placing visual effect before script, using unlikely angles (POV) or weird shots through fishbowls and the like.

Chandler said: "(Strangers) had no guts, no plausibility, no characters, no dialogue. But of course it's Hitchcock....'

He had more control over the situation with his script for The Blue Dahlia (1946), which was all his, with a full ensemble of glittering night-life sleaze: a returning war hero, a faithless wife, a nightclub hood, a blackmailing peeper, couple of straightcops, a seedy skidrow hotel clerk, a brain-damaged vet, a fantasy blonde and a whole lot of bodies on stage when all's said and done. The vet (Alan Ladd) returns to L.A. with two buddies from the Pacific theatre to find his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) in full party mode with her lover, a slick operator who owns a nightclub called The Blue Dahlia. Eddie Harwood. Skinny, with a skinny face and eye-brows for a moustache (the familiar dance hall lizard). Things don't go well, naturally, and Johnny (Ladd) soon finds himself on the lam for the murder of his slinky, hostile wife. However a mysterious blonde in a coupe shows up and rescues Johnny from the rain, drives him to Malibu in the first of a series of crude coincidences that has Ladd remark, "Your timing's good...." Eventually nearly everyone is a suspect... some live, some die... and a couple die very conveniently. Guess who: she's a tramp, he's a hood. By the end it's she's a widow, he's a widower, and they might as well get together, no tears lost. Chandler Lite.

The real Chandler has a current of sadism running in his protagonists that few leading men caught. Bogart did, Dick Powell was close, and Fred McMurray had a nice ambiguity about him that fit his part. Chandler liked all three. He liked Alan Ladd, although Ladd was just too nice, Boy Scout nice. Sure, his character knew a bit of HTH (hand-to-hand) but he was too small, lacked that grit that the Chandler man has when going up against the hoods. Gerald Mohr certainly had it (at least for radio drama), a tough-love bully with a sense of humour and a sucker in the clinch. Later versions of the Marlowe character are worth considering too. The 1983 HBO series starring Powers Booth is quite good. Mitchum tried but maybe he was too old, too late, too Mitchum.

Chandler wrote a Marlowe script that never made the screen but was later converted into the novel Playback, published in 1958, just before his death. It's definitely out of step with the earlier Marlowe stories -- romantic, more middle-class, sends Marlowe to San Diego ('Dago') and the oceanside resort of Esmeralda in pursuit of a fugitive babe, more or less in parallel with Chandler's own move to the affluent suburb of La Jolla. It's another tale of blackmail, muggings and sexual harassment. No doubt the SoCal location would've looked good in Technicolor, but as a novel, you wouldn't want to rate it or date it as his last.

Again, Chandler Lite.

Chandler: The Big Sleep

The poetry of illiteracy: Chandler started out as a poet in his younger days, published a few poems in the London literary mags and papers of the day. His grasp of the street idiom, its music, its rhythm, its metaphor, its attitude... the sub-cultural politics, the anarchy and the telepathy. All this is brilliant. Death comes in iambic pentameter, as it does for all poets. The hand gun was the cell phone of the day, the fastest way of doing business. And the talk? The talk was all poetry, street jive replete with subtext and code. Languages? Yes, Chandler was good at languages. English, French, German... some Latin, some Greek... and fluent street.

'The bell chimed and a tall dark girl in jodpurs opened the door. Sexy was very faint praise for her. The jodhpurs, like her hair, were coal black. She wore a white silk shirt with a scarlet scarf loose around her throat. It was not as vivid as her mouth. She held a long brown cigarette in a pair of tiny golden tweezers. The fingers holding it were more than adequately jeweled. Her black hair was parted in the middle and a line of scalp as white as snow went over the top of her head and dropped out of sight behind. Two thick braids of her shining hair lay one on each side of her slim brown neck. Each was tied with a small scarlet bow. But it was a long time since she was a little girl.' (Miss Dolores Gonzales, Little Sister)

His characters are all first impressions, not recollections. Police aside, if he knows someone, he knows him or her through the newspaper or the silver screen. Some are mere rumours, although often show up under an alias. Even though Chandler used the investigation narrative, for the most part what you see is what you get. L.A. is a transient world. Everybody in Marlowe's reality seem to be from somewhere else or nowhere at all. Some hoods might have a mythology but none ever have a mother, and if they have a woman, well, she's strictly visual. And available. And murder comes easily to just about any and all as if they're all combat veterans and carry on as if the war has never ended, just spread to America, became socialized.

"We're a big, rough, rich, wild people," said Marlowe, "and crime is the price we pay for it." (The Long Goodbye)

Johnny (Alan Ladd) confronts his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) in The Blue Dahlia

Chandler scripted The Blue Dahlia

'the best scenes I ever wrote were practically monosyllabic' (Chandler)

'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. I put them on and went out of the room' (Marlowe, Farewell My Lovely, 1940)

Farewell certainly has its moments, even though (again) it's a stitching of two or three previously published pulp stories into a switchback narrative that leaves you guessing like a poker player. It's very witty, with lots of great lines like "He had a nice breath, Haig & Haig at least" or "The house itself was not much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building." Marlowe has a fateful encounter with a mob enforcer called Moose Malloy who has just got out of San Quentin and is looking for his old girlfriend, a nightclub chanteuse named Velma. And of course she's hard to find because she's called somebody else now, lives behind gates, money and lawyers.

'She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket'

It's the familiar picaresque Marlowe journey through blackjack muggings, pistol whippings, Judas kisses, druggings and all for very little gain even though there's a good girl who's dying to play house. Not Marlowe, not forever-38-Marlowe. He always keeps his distance, even when it can be measured by zero decimal zero.

Chandler was an insomniac and the feeling runs through much of his fiction, like an animal in the jungle who fears to be caught napping. Nobody is relaxed -- except when dead -- and everybody drinks to excess, day or night. In much of the humour there's a counter-current of beligerence that can and sometimes does explode into violence. Punch and counter-punch, insult for insult... and there's always I just don't like the look of your face. Tough guys can only stay tough at someone else's expense.

As a biopsy of Art Deco America, Farewell My Lovely is fascinating. Consider the brilliant writing that describes Marlowe's journey from his office through Hollywood and Beverly Hills and beyond the city in a big new seven seat Packard. Better than a road map, better than a newsreel. Says Marlowe, before they set off:

'The Indian put me in the back. Sitting there alone I felt like a high-class corpse, laid out by an undertaker with good taste.'

It criticizes. it exalts, it mythologizes. There's a similar sequence in (The Little Sister) where Marlowe goes on a long drive north of the city, eventually looping back to L.A. via the coast. Encino... Thousand Oaks... Oxnard... Malibu (more movie stars). Punctuated stream-of-consciousness. Marlowe is wired, angry, impaired. His monologue launders the entire social gestalt, paragraphs ending on the refrain "Hold it, Marlowe. You're not human tonight." It's like something Chandler might've written in his journal after a bad day at the office when he was an oil company exec. Turn rage into poetry. Marlowe does -- he goes to the movies.

No doubt Chandler experienced such a ride once or twice when he was an executive for the Dabney Oil Syndicate. He rose from being a book keeper to being a VP before he got fired (reportedly) due to his alcoholism. This firing forced him to try his hand at pulp fiction, and the transition was almost seamless, maybe because one hallucination was much the same as the other, the faction of the past fulminating the fiction of the future. When he gets to the mansion, he almost gets seduced, and after the mansion, he gets 'sapped' by a rogue cop and confined to a private psychiatric clinic. Good old Marlowe: self-satire, sarcasm, sadism, occasional masochism... and behind it all a sympathetic soul who never cheats a client or a foe.

There's a Hungarian Aleister Crowley figure called Amphor -- the sort Californian occult hustler who would proliferate in the following years as a New Age guru -- and a couple of bent Bay City (Santa Monica) cops, Blane and Galbraith. Blane is the beast, Galbraith along for the ride. Marlowe keeps calling Galbraith "Hemingway" -- you have to read it to get the joke but a joke it is, and Chandler makes the most of it. Moose is wanted for murder, but the sympathetic Marlowe takes up the pursuit of Velma for no good reason other than... well, there's something rotten in the state of Denmark.

'I climbed and climbed up the ventilation shaft. I climbed the Himalayas and stepped out on top and guys with machine guns were all around me'

His quest takes him to a gambling ship moored outside the 3 mile limit where 'the wet air was as cold as the ashes of love' (yes, he uses 'ashes' a lot). Chandler's Dulwich College classical education seems to be at play here in the sleuth's quietly symbolic passage to the SS Montecito. The atmosphere is as grim and edgy as a crossing of the River Styx before entry to the "underworld'. Great stuff. Sociology, politics and history -- you get the Los Angeles scene down to the smell, the vulgar fumes of dirty money and the narcotic exhaust of Chanel. Chandler is writing in top gear here. The baddies are out and about, although none of them are all bad. The owner-operator of the gambling ship is Black Mask sublime. Brunette -- an 'up' on the last 'e' if he's Italian and chances are, he is. And chances are Brunette is Chandler's friendly portrait of Anthony Cornero (aka Tony the Hat) who ran 2 gambling ships (the SS Rex and the SS Tango) from 1938 until 1946 off Santa Monica until they were put under siege by the authorities and forced to cease operations.

Cornero -- who made his stake as a bootlegger running rum and whisky from British Columbia into L.A. -- started his gambling entrepreneurship with The Meadows in 1933, the first successful gambling club in Las Vegas. Two or three years later, following a disagreement with the Mob over a piece of the action, Lucky Luciano and Mayer Lansky had the place torched and Cornero was forced back to L.A. where, undaunted, he bought a couple of ships and had them outfitted as casinos. They had restaurants and bars too... and gunmen.

In the five years after his wife's death in December 1954, Chandler had been hanging out in London periodically. There Ian Fleming suggested that the Sunday Times commission Chandler to interview Lucky Luciano, the Italian-American mobster who was living in exile in Naples. Chandler met with Lucky in 1958 at his Neapolitan home. Both got drunk. The resulting piece My Friend Luco -- not an interview, but rather a profile -- was never published. It was probably seen as too sympathetic:

'He is supposed to be a very evil man, the multimillionaire head of a world-wide narcotics syndicate. I don't think he is either. He seemed to me about as much like a tough mobster as I am like the late unlamented Mussolini. He has a soft voice, a patient sad face, and is extremely courteous in every way. This might all be a front, but I don't think I am that easily fooled. A man who has been involved in brutal crimes bears a mark. Luciano seemed to be a lonely man who has been endlessly tormented and yet bore little or no malice. I liked him and had no reason not to. He is probably not perfect, but neither am I.'

One 'lonely man' to another? Duped by his own nostalgia for an era that gave his fantasies meaning and profit? Chandler goes on to hammer Prohibition as one of America's great mistakes and that Lucky L was scapegoated:

'I believe Luciano was deliberately framed by an ambitious prosecutor (for 'compulsory prostitution')...'

You could say that Chandler -- as a heavy drinker -- had good reason to feel this way. Or you could say that by 1958 Chandler had lost his mojo. His articles were often angry, had that late night scorn that worked so well in his fiction but in his non-fiction grated. Even his highly regarded essay The Simple Art of Murder has a testy feel about it, where the humour is more ill than good. Perhaps he worked best in fiction, in dialogue with himself, or in letters, in dialogue with just one person.

Chandler: Farewell My Lovely

SS Tango gambling ship

The Long Goodbye (1953)

"Alcohol is like love," (Terry Lennox) said. "The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.'

Let's play it this way: maybe Chandler was walking around Hollywood, saw a handsome young drunk in the street who reminded him of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whom he admired. Fellow alcoholics, wildly romantic, loved women, wrote for the pictures, poets in a philistine world, and all that. Muy sympatico. Maybe he thought, this fellow could be me, his face has two sides and one is false, maybe a skin graft, and for what, and why? He was in the war, got messed up by a shell burst. Now here he is, years later, well-dressed but staggering around like Chaplin (like a broken film unspooling from the projector). Would I offer a helping hand? Of course I would. There but for the grace of God go I. I'll call him Terry Lennox, a good Anglo name, maybe a fake name because this guy's a hood or he hangs with hoods. That's it, he knows a couple of guys from the army, they owe him, Terry maybe saved their lives. One is big in Las Vegas, the other is bad news here in L.A. Terry, however, is on the skids. He married a rich dame who plays loose, call her Sylvia. She has a sister, Eileen Wade, married to a drunken wreck of a writer -- not serious like Fitzgerald or the like, maybe a best-selling historical novelist, so he's corrupted with self-loathing and the ball-breaking burden of a rich wife and her hard-ass father. I know, I know, I use the big sister-little sister-big daddy trinity too much, but Lennox, this floating mysterious Gatsby type will camouflage this. Sylvia gets murdered, her face mutilated in a nice psychological mirror touch to her husband Terry, the number one suspect. Terry will skip town, get Marlowe, his new buddy, to drive him to Mexico and for this he'll later send M. a five thousand dollar bill, one of the few in existence, and one that Marlowe will never cash. That's right -- never cash. Marlowe can't be bought. He can be had but not bought.

And he thinks he's been had, especially when news comes that Terry Lennox committed suicide in Mexico, and the Sylvia (Potter) Lennox murder case is put on ice. And because he thinks he's been had, Marlowe will continue to dig into the world of the idle rich who live in 'Idle Valley', much to the discomfort of several parties, including Sylvia's family, the police and some local hoods.

'You write in a style that has been imitated, even plagiarized, to the point where you begin to imitate your imitators. So you have to go where they can't follow you,' wrote Chandler in 1952. After the novel was published in '53, he was saying it was the best thing he'd ever written, and to be sure, many commentators feel The Long Goodbye is one of his masterpieces. But is it? Writers often think the last thing they've written is the best one of all. Perhaps Chandler thought he was going deeper into the soul of his generation with the disfigured fugitive Terry Lennox, a sort of Jay Gatsby-Harry Lime Faustian combo and indeed the character does have a certain exotic feel about it, although not definitively so. In a show-business town where just about everyone is acting a part, his role is missing something. Oedipus had something... Fatty Arbuckle... but Lennox?

Oh, to be sure there is some great writing here and there, although by Chapter 30, 31, it's getting forced, circular, as if treading water and Chandler seems unsure of his destination. The coitus interruptus narrative were Marlowe teases women and Chandler teases us has lost its edge. Marlowe is more like a social worker than the relentless dick who forces his way through scams, shams, skirts and the bogus status quo.

Chandler: The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler, La Jolla

'She smelled the way the Taj Mahal does by moonlight'

A lot of people wrote about Hollywood when Chandler was doing his thing. Fitzgerald, The Pat Hobby Stories, The Last Tycoon... Nathaniel West, The Day of the Locust... W.T. Ballard, the Bill Lennox series. And so on. By the 1940s, Hollywood had become a genre. Chandler's Little Sister (1949) is one of the best. Marlowe is bitter here, L.A. is grinding him down. Too many bully cops, perhaps, or too much booze, or the crass hypocrisy of a coarse society with airs. The temples have been occupied by the philistines, the streets by the rabble.

"Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail-order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else."

Marlowe is at the wheel of movie star Dolores Gonzales' Mercury coupe as they speed through the night to rescue her friend Mavis Weld from the clutches of her gangster lover, Weepy Moyer, now going by the alias 'Steelgrave'. There's an absurdity to the situation, as Dolores is a sex siren measured in degrees Kelvin, always 'in character', always playing to the camera even when there is no camera around. She paws at Marlowe, yet Marlowe shrugs her off, declaims his angry rap.

Yet the bitterness becomes poetic paradox. He's not blind to beauty, and he channels the nocturnal magic, the lyricism of the California night:

'A little breeze blew down over the pass. There was the odor of mild sage, the acrid tang of eucalyotus, and the quiet smell of dust. Windows glowed on the hillside.'

Doesn't smell like blackmail, does it? Blackmail, the most basic of human power games, starts in childhood, ends in eternity. So here is Marlowe, a little sister with a twenty dollar bill and a pair of 'slant cheaters', a naughty brother with a Leica and an ice pick, a sexually aggressive Latina movie player, a bent doctor with a reefer clinic, a mob hitman now posing as a restaurateur... Bay City bully cops, movie stars and moonlit mansions, bodies, bullets, 'and the quiet smell of dust.' And it's all about blackmail, the only plot Hollywood never tires of, whether it's for an Oscar or a grave.

Bay City Blues. He wrote it once and then wrote it again in another tongue. First time was masculine, the second, feminine.

The writing is flat out brilliant, brother. Everything is in balance in this novel -- the humour, black, bent or burlesque; the characters, black, bent or burlesque; the scenes... well, you get it. Marlowe reads the urban night like a mystic. He gets harassed, he gets thumped, he gets kissed ('her lips burned like dry ice')... he gets to the bottom of things, even if the bottom is just another empty bottle with four stars. Perhaps his raps get a bit stagey towards the end as he tries to work out 'the plot' (it's an affliction of the genre, alas), although Chandler allows the action to tell the story more than most poets who work in prose.

Marlowe's tease personality isn't just a white protestant self-discipline characteristic, but also the means by which his characters can be left unsullied for the sexual fantasies of the reader. Marlowe remains available, is merely a point-of-view in the Hollywood bordello. A blunt way of putting it would be that Chandler wrote masturbation fiction. Not porno, not voyeurism, as he writes in erotic silhouette. Shape triggers the imagination as the artist's brush starts the hallucination. The action is charged with sexual aggression and inter-mural violence. Society is just a circus act where entrances and exits are more important than anything that happens in between. Marlowe is the artist of the staged death. He arranges the tableau, rigs the evidence, sets everything up so the lady can escape. Such is the case with Mavis Weld and Steelgrave... he deserved to die anyway, whether from a female bullet or some government cyanide, so let's save the tax payer some money, allow sex to triumph. After all, Miss Weld's best work is yet to come. Et cetera.

It's this re-staging of the crime that creates plot in Chandler's stories when there often isn't one at all. Bad-tempered murders occur more often than reasoned, motivated murders. Marlowe, who walks between the law and the wilderness, is usually hired as a fixer, not an enforcer. In The Lady in the Lake, does anyone know why the women do what they do? The travelogue blinds you to the percentages.

'Most crime fiction is phony. Hammett made it believable because he wrote about people he knew from his experience with the Pinkertons in Baltimore and San Francisco. He avoided the mistake Chandler and his imitators made and make in going psychological, with Little Sisters sucking their thumbs.' (W.T. Ballard, Black Mask writer, novelist & movie maker)

'I threw a pillow but it was too slow. She shot him five times in the stomach. The bullets made no more sound than fingers going into a glove.'

So what is it with Chandler and these killer dames? Are they all daughters of Satan born to destroy the men they couple with... or are the men just firing blanks at their expense? Some will say Chandler's women are abnormal or just fantasy. The clothes they wear might be to keep them warm between sexual encounters, feathery semaphores for their feminine art. You might well ask if he has a belief in intrinsic evil, a religious sense of earthly combat, of deadly polarity. Well, does anyone read the Bible in his stories? He has the odd funeral home and church, but there are far, far more bars, nightclubs, casinos and tobacco stands in the Marlowe milieu. Cigarettes, whiskey and guns... guns, whiskey and dames... dames, money and death. The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye... all female killers, and not one of them reach the the electric chair. No wonder Chandler was dismayed by the Ruth Ellis execution.

'I looked back as I opened the door. Slim, dark and lovely and smiling. Reeking with sex, utterly beyond the moral laws of this or any world I could imagine.' (Marlowe on Dolores Gonzales)

Chandler: Lady in the Lake

'Maybe I'm an ectoplasm with a private license' (Marlowe)

Mystery remains at the core of Chandler's fiction, as if he was dealing from an incomplete deck. He tried to shoot himself close to the end, although it was probably booze, insomnia and loneliness that got him. He was 70. Still copied today, even when the writers who do say they've never read him.

© Lawrence Russell October 2018

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*All non-fiction Chandler quotes are from The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959, edt. Tom Hiney and Frank McShane

Raymond Chandler: Letters

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