Thursday, February 19, 2009

Raymond Chandler: Poet of Violence

RAYMOND CHANDLER (1888-1959) – along with Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Mickey Spillane (creator of Mike Hammer) – belongs to the near-extinct specie that is now becoming increasing rare nowadays: the writer of detective fiction, “the poetry of violence.”

Raymond Chandler wrote detective stories, but his stories have a thematic difference from the standard murder-mystery. “The emotional basis of the standard detective story,” he wrote, “was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done.”

But this is not how the real world operates. So he added that justice will not be done “unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done.” This mordant view alone makes Chandler and his works valuable.

In his stories, although murders were also committed and solved, the major theme was always the concern for human misery. This is the same theme that links all literature that matter.

In his lifetime, Chandler had written 23 short stories, out of which 15 are generally known to the reading public. Philip Marlowe, the detective-hero in all his novels, first appeared in The Big Sleep, the first of his seven novels.

Philip Marlowe projects a hard-edged philosophy rarely found and appreciated in detective novels of his – and any – period. He is the distillation of Chandler’s ideal detective.

“He is the hero, he is everything.” Chandler wrote in his essay, The Simple Art of Murder. “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

While this description easily fits his creation, it can also sum up the creator, himself an unusual man.

Born in 1888, Chandler published his first story, Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, when he was 45. Before that, he was an executive in five oil companies, and had it not been for the Great Depression that caused the oil business to collapse in the 1930s, he would be unknown today – buried in forgotten records as a writer of oil reports.

Wall Street’s loss was Literature’s gain. When Chandler died in 1959, his works had been translated and published in 18 countries, sought throughout the world “by those who recognized a good story and appreciated artistry in detective fiction.”

Today, Raymond Chandler lives on in the adventures of Philip Marlowe, his durable and endearing alter-ego who “was motivated lass by the desire to solve the mystery of a murder than by the compelling necessity to right social wrongs.”

We might add that Marlowe the Adventurer can extract from the commonplace in life some of the anomalies in human existence. In The Little Sister, he expounds on the nature of clerkship:

“You go in through double swing doors. Inside the double doors there is combination PBX and information desk at which sits one of those ageless women you see around municipal offices in the world. They were never young and will never be old. They have no beauty, no charm, no style. They don’t have to please anybody. They are safe. They are civil without ever quite being polite and intelligent and knowledgeable, without interest in anything. They are what human beings turn into when they trade life for existence and ambition for security.”

And elsewhere in the same novel, he listens to a cop’s lament: “We’re coppers and everybody hates our guts… As if we didn’t get pushed around enough by the guys in the corner offices, the City Hall gang, the day chief, the night chief, the Chamber of Commerce, His Honor the Mayor in his paneled office four times as big as the three lousy rooms the whole homicide staff has to work out of…

“We spend our lives turning over dirty underwear and sniffing rotten teeth. We go up dark stairways to get a gun punk with a skinful of hop and sometimes we don’t get all the way up, and our wives wait dinner that night and all the other nights. We don’t come home anymore.

“And nights we do come home, we come home so goddam tired we can’t eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we like awake in the dark in a cheap house on a cheap street and listen to the drunks down the block having fun. And just about the time we drop off the phone rings and we get up and start all over again…”

And so on. Philip Marlowe understands and that is the secret of his philosophy: He is not weak because he is strong; but that strength is not tat of brute force, rather it is a strong tolerance – a capacity not to take offense – for what the world has to offer everyday, for what human beings do to each other everyday.

No wonder Raymond Chandler lives – even if only in the hearts of a few who find universality in his writings, where Philip Marlowe lives.

We seek in the printed pages what we cannot find in the troubled realities of our time. So long as this is true, Philip Marlowe will endure.

And so will Raymond Chandler, a poet of violence.

This first appeared in June 1990 issue of The Angeles Sun. I edited it for this blog.

Photo of Raymond Chandler from American

Also, read The Genius of Raymond Chandler: An Interview with Judith Freeman
By Allen Barra at

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