Pembroke College, Cambridge
The union of opposites, after all, is the very basis of the American outlook: the old and new worlds, the past and present, the self and society, the supernatural and nature.1
To what extent was Raymond Chandler’s distinctive style shaped by ‘the union of opposites’? Were the opposites in his work united at all? It is the aim of this essay to consider, in detail, the effect of dialectic conflicts in his novels upon his language, and, to some degree, upon his recurring themes. Raymond Chandler’s novels are, without doubt, possessed of ‘some magic’2, a quality which prompted this description by Billy Wilder: ‘by God, a kind of lightning struck on every page’3. This vitality, the electric quality of Chandler’s writing, is a result of various powerful dialectics, what Miriam Gross calls ‘paradoxes in Chandler’:
the mixture of toughness and sentimentality, for instance; the anti-literary stance which coexisted with a intense literary ambition; initially he seemed a ruthlessly modern writer... It took longer to see the underlying romanticism4.
The last of these, as we shall see, is a most important point. Gross does not mention, however, conflicts of class and wealth; of nationality, Englishness versus the American; of reality and fantasy. Each of these binary oppositions is laid over the form of the ‘novel of murder’, which Chandler described as ‘the most complete pattern of the tensions on which we live in this generation’ (Speaking, p. 53), one built around a dialectic of chaos and order. Paul Skenazy, noting a class dialectic in Chandler, and linking it to the tensions in Chandler’s conception of his national identity, writes that ‘one feels the discordances, the doubleness, in everything he wrote: in the mixtures of illusion and despair, hope and defeat’ (Speaking, ‘Introduction’, p. 2). We see, then, even from this brief examination, that critics have recognised a dialectical element in Chandler.

Several of the dialectic processes in Chandler’s work, however, are aspects of that greater conflict between tradition and the modern mentioned by Gross in the passage above. There is a desire in his works to progress, to create modern literature:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them.5
Here, Chandler sets up an opposition between artificiality and modernity; realism is synonymous with the modern. History is an imaginative construction6, and only the present can seem wholly real to the modern reader, he seems to argue. Only the modern can ring true, and yet the literature of the past lingers:
The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition... They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talked about them.7
And yet his own technique frustrates this impulse to modernity. His opinions, as stated above, do not prevent Chandler from alluding to ‘Old-fashioned novels’, and to poetry or drama, in order to emphasise the character of his age. We find references to Mallory (Chandler’s original choice of name for Marlowe8) in several places. In The High Window9 Marlowe is a ‘shop-soiled Galahad’ (p. 174); the Sternwood hallway in The Big Sleep10 has a stained glass window depicting a knight rescuing a ‘damsel’ (p. 9); and, of course, there is The Lady in the Lake11. Skenazy12 draws attention to the names of Chandler’s characters: they have allusive names such as Quest, Grayle, Kingsley’ (p. 32).

 Chandler also has Marlowe refer to later literature, often similarly related to questions of chivalry. He quotes Shakespeare, in Farewell, My Lovely13 (he ‘has Richard III on his mind as he speaks to Dr Sonderborg’14):

But me not buts. I’ll make a sop of you. I’ll drown you in a butt of Malmsey wine. I wish I had a butt of Malmsey wine to drown in. Shakespeare. He knew his liquor too. (p. 158)
Chandler also alludes, in form and content, if not in style, to Dickens, as shall be discussed later in this essay.

A conflict emerges when this allusion becomes a nostalgic lament, and the truth of the modern is compromised: there is a frustrating force. Only the modern can be real, and yet the present is worthless. Daniel Schwarz15, writing of Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence, notes that the author no sooner brings together two distinct worlds than he satirically compares the modern world disfavourably to a previous one’ (p. 20), and it is a problem for modernists that their vision of progress is actually a process of devolution’ (Ibid, p. 21). Chandler is not a modernist, but his work resonates with the same kind of melancholy lament for the future as Lawrence’s proto-modernist’ The Rainbow16. A lack of hope for the future, represented in Lawrence’17 by the collapse of male-female relationships, also pervades Chandler’s novels, and Marlowe, with his curious lack of progress, personifies this stasis, as expressed here, first in his own words, and then by Chandler:

‘Wherever I went, whatever I did, this was what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Playback18, p. 156)
I think he [Marlowe] said that he was thirty-eight years old, but that was quite a while ago and he is no older today. This is just something you will have to face. (Speaking, p. 227).
There is further evidence. MacShane includes in his biography of Chandler’19 an example of his unpublished poetry, which he notes is ‘not a good poem’ (p. 22), but which contains a glimpse of Chandler’s ideology:
‘Let me go back
Into that soft and gorgeous future
Which is not past,
Never having happened,
But yet is utterly lost (p. 21)
Whilst this piece is utterly in contrast stylistically with Chandler’s more well known work, it shares certain themes, specifically a sense of nostalgia for an age yet to come. It describes exactly the lack of momentum, of hope, and the necessity of regressing to an earlier vision of progress, and it is this which his allusions, too, represent.

In each of the novels, this stasis manifests itself in a similar cycle of futile action, as Marlowe struggles with arbitrarily designed mysteries, never quite finding his solution’20. Tsvetan Todorov tells us that narratives begin with disruption of equilibrium, and end when order is restored’21. Chandler disobeys this rule, as well as the rules of the detective genre to which he ostensibly belongs, and in so doing, enhances the sense of Marlowe’s frustration: ‘I really don’t seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously as I should’ (Speaking, p. 49). There is a dialectic, we might say, between genre, with its rigid form, and formlessness. Chandler’s assessment of his own attitude is an understatement, and when we consider Chandler’s views on literature as a whole, from his introduction to Pearls Are a Nuisance22, a complex ideology emerges:

‘It is a good deal more than unlikely that any writer now living will produce a better historical novel than ‘Henry Esmond, a better tale than children than ‘The Golden Age, a sharper social vignette than ‘Madame Bovary, a more graceful and elegant evocation than ‘The Spoils of Poynton, a wider and richer canvas than ‘War and Peace or ‘The Brother Karamazov. But to devise a more plausible mystery than ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles or ‘The Purloined Letter should not be too difficult... a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can never be surpassed. (p. 12)
In this passage is described Chandler’s dialectic of hope and nostalgia, or progress and devolution, to restate the formula. There are no ‘classics’ left to write, he argues, and yet finds hope within his genre. He then pointedly fails to attain that hope. Whilst he fails, however, to write a ‘more plausible mystery’ than, say, Agatha Christie, this is, rather than being a sign of failure, a result of his exhausting the possibilities of the form. He is forced to step outside it in order to find a suitable shape for his novels, and so creates a ‘non-mystery’23. There is, of course, a difference between plausibility and realism, and it is in the pursuit of the latter that the former comes into question.

Chandler’s allusions to Dickens’ Great Expectations24, and to the Bildungsroman25 have already been mentioned, but a more detailed discussion of these allusions, in relation to frustration and stasis, would be fruitful. There is in Chandler’s novels, and in ‘The Big Sleep in particular’26, an echo, and an inversion, of Pip’s progress; Philip Marlowe and Dickens young protagonist share a forename, and the narrative of Chandler’s novel resembles Dickens’. Vivian and Carmen, the General’s daughters, remind us of Estella and General Sternwood is clearly a kind of Miss Havisham. Compare these descriptions of Miss Havisham and General Sternwood:

she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white... I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. (p. 61)
The air was thick wet and steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom... an old and obviously dying man watched us come and go with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago... His long narrow body was wrapped... in that heat... in a travelling rug and a faded red bathrobe. (pp. 13-14)
Both have lost their vitality, a fact represented respectively by the wedding dress and the red of the bathrobe; she is no longer a bride, he is no longer a traveller. Chandler’s Bildungsromantische catalyst, however, differs subtly from Dickens. In Chandler there is neither life, nor hope: the eyes, which in Dickens are the repository of that hope, are quite dead, and not even the flowers which surround Sternwood make up this defecit, despite their fecundity. They remind Marlowe of ‘the newly washed fingers of dead men’ (p. 13), and so suggest embalmment, stasis, life in death. What Chandler creates is a Bildungsroman without progress, and so this genre, too, is undermined. Marlowe enters the narrative as a cynical thirty-eight year old, and leaves it just so, only with his cynicism reinforced:
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... What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? (p. 220)
This is a further subversion of the mystery: what is a ‘novel of murder’ in which death, and the fate of the dead, do not matter? It is an aimless chivalric quest, in which the grail is of no importance (see Rabinowitz 20).

In the passages above, the dialectic of progress and devolution is represented by the use, and manipulation of allusion, but reference to Great Expectations also draws to our attention a second dialectic of tradition and modernity, and a further example of frustration and stasis: the struggle between Marlowe’s class consciousness, and his actual behaviour in relation to the rich; the tendency of the ‘detective martyr willingly [to] lay himself down on their altar’27, despite his apparent beliefs. In every novel from The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye28, excluding The Little Sister29, we see Marlowe repulsed by wealth, and ‘aristocracy’30, and yet drawn to serve it: there is in this relationship an opposition between tradition (class structures) and progress (almost in Marxist terms)31. His behaviour is the result of this dialectic process, the synthesis of a phenomenon described by R W Lid32: ‘Chandler was a master at portraying the schizoid aspects of American culture and the ways in which the base and ideal and their manifestations are so closely intertwined as to be inseperable’ (p. 44). It is this dependency of the ideal upon the base that explains Chandler’s comment upon the issue of his, and Marlowe’s, attitude to the rich: ‘Philip Marlowe and I do not despise the upper classes because they take baths and have money; we despise them because they are phoney’ (Speaking, p. 215). Cleanliness, connoting purity, and money are juxtaposed, and the falseness is exposed.

Chris Lavery, from ‘The Lady in the Lake, is one character who combines the ideal and the base. Marlowe describes the paradox in these terms, having seen Lavery unexpectedly spit on the carpet:

It jarred me. It was like watching the veneer peel off and leave a tough kid in an alley. Or like hearing an apparently refined woman start expressing herself in four- letter words. (p. 24)
Marlowe sees in Terry Lennox (‘The Long Goodbye) a similar juxtaposition. He speaks with an English accent, and so is linked to the ‘old world’, and appears at one point looking ‘beautifully calm... He wore an oyster-white raincoat and gloves and no hat, his white hair was as smooth as a bird’s breast’ (p. 17). And yet he is rich in the worst possible way, as far as Marlowe (and Chandler) are concerned (he has, in effect, prostituted himself (‘Sooner or later I may figure out why you like being a kept poodle’ (p. 20)) and Marlowe is disgusted by the corruption. Sex and money, the two great impurities are combined in Lennox; sex is ‘an impure emotion - impure in the aesthetic sense’ (p. 21), and it is inextricably linked, in Marlowe’s mind, with money. He says to Terry Lennox ‘you’re as elegant as a fifty-dollar whore’ (p. 320), and there is this telling exchange, between Linda Loring and Marlowe:
'Do you love me very much? Or will you if I go to bed with you?’
‘You don’t have to go to bed with me, you know. I don’t absolutely insist on it.’
‘Thank you.’
‘I want my champagne.’
‘How much money have you got?’
‘Altogether? How would I know? About eight million dollars.’
‘I’ve decided to go to bed with you.’
‘Mercenary,’ she said. (p.306)
Marlowe is aware of his situation, and treats it ironically. Despite the important point that this scene is very funny, the fact remains that Marlowe has given himself up to a woman whose wealth he despises; this is a human, physical representation of an ideological relationship. ‘The Poodle Springs Story’33, Chandler’s unfinished sequel to The Long Goodbye, in which we see something of Marlowe’s married life with Linda, only confirms our feeling. Their relationship will always be tarnished by money, and he will always feel emasculated, and so diminished: ‘It’ll be the first time I’ve been kept. Can I wear a sarong and paint my little toenails... ?’ (p. 253). The purpose of marriage, if we take that to be procreation, and the union of male and female, has, in in effect, been negated by this emasculation, and the stasis is asserted once more; the synthesis fails.

These conflicts of past and present do not simply manifest themselves on the thematic plane. They have a pervasive influence on the stylistic aspect of the novels. We have already seen evidence of allusion, and its effect on Chandler’s language, but in relationship to Hemingway and Conrad, this process continues and becomes more intense. We know from Chandler’s letters and essays that he regarded Hemingway as ‘a genius’ (‘Speaking, p. 81), and MacShane describes how Chandler ‘fell under a new literary influence’, and quotes at length from an affectionate parody which Chandler wrote in 1932, entitled ‘Beer in the Sergeant Major’s hat, or The Sun Also Sneezes’. Chandler’s dedication reads: ‘dedicated with no good reason to the greatest living American novelist: Ernest Hemingway’ (all quotations from MacShane, 1976, p. 42). Even as late as 1940, in his second novel, Chandler was still paying homage; in chapter 23 and 24 of Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe is ‘taken for a ride’ by two corrupt Los Angeles detectives, whose names we never learn. Marlowe christens one of them ‘Hemingway’, and, when the officer exhibits and irritating habit of echoing Marlowe’s wisecracks, orders: ‘don’t repeat everything I say’ (p. 140). This is the beginning of an extended joke (‘the funniest bit of writing in all of Chandler’34) which also casts light upon his style, specifically his use of repetition. Chandler mentions Hemingway fifteen times in four pages, and concludes this comic vignette with a self-referential ‘punch-line’:

‘Who is this Hemingway person at all?’
‘A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.’ (p. 143)
Repetition is a vital part of Chandler’s literary voice, and often manifests itself as a subtle aspect of the struggle between the new and old in his work. Language, words themselves and become obsolete, and yet Chandler continues to use them, playing upon our sense of discomfort at their presence. For example, there is the word ‘nice’, as it appears in The Lady in the Lake; it is a word which children are taught not to use. It is a bankrupt and empty adjective, and so, for that very reason, Chandler uses it six times in one paragraph:
It was a very nice jail... It was a very nice city hall. Bay City was a very nice place. People lived there and thought so. If I lived there, I would probably think so. I would see the nice blue bay and the cliffs and the yacht harbour and the quiet streets of houses, old houses brooding under old trees and new houses with sharp green lawns and wire fences and staked saplings set into the parkway in front of them. I knew a girl who lived on Twenty-fifth Street. It was a nice street. She was a nice girl. She liked Bay City. (p. 158)
This passage embodies the conflict between the ‘old houses’ and the modern institutional nature of the jail. In an earlier paragraph, Marlowe describes the cell as ‘almost brand new’; its walls are ‘disfigured... by squirted tobacco juice’; he tells us that ‘They [the police] had tapped me for a gun’; he describes the distant screams of a female prisoner. Ejaculation, intrusion, violation: a process of invasive modernity sharply in contrast to the strictly marked boundaries of the old town. The modern is phallic and sexually intrusive, so that when, Marlowe uses the word ‘nice’, we sense a powerful cynicism, ambiguously juxtaposed with a sincere admiration for the old town. ‘Nice’ is reloaded with new meaning. It represents the appreciation of surface detail, perhaps, but recognises, on the ironic plane, the impossibility of our having faith in those impressions. The ‘nice girl’ might be a nice girl, we cannot tell, because the repetition reinvests the word with so many meanings that, far from being meaningless, it has become too complex, and too ambiguous. Again, we see a frustration of progress: we think that Chandler is taking us somewhere, only to find a dead-end. Repetition is a staticising technique. Consider, also, these passages, which demonstrate Chandler’s re-writing of his short stories for the novels:
She gave me what she thought was a smile of welcome, but what I thought was a grimace of strain. (p. 400, ‘Killer in the Rain’35)
There was an overtone of strain in her smile. It wasn’t a smile at all. It was a grimace. She just thought it was as smile. (p. 54, The Big Sleep)
In his re-writing, Chandler carefully amplifies our discomfort and repetition, as it appears in the second piece, is a restraining device, arresting the progress of the passage, and, like the use of ‘nice’, playing upon our formal sensibilities. In effect, he removes the word ‘strain’, but, by including the word ‘smile’ twice more, enacts that strain in his prose. The passage above contradicts itself (the ‘smile’ isn’t a smile) and has about it something of the stuck record, if you will. We are forced to concentrate, to consider this detail, for longer than we should like to, and the fragmentation of the sentences creates a frustrating lack of momentum. The first version, with its fairly conventional, flowing motion, with a mid-point caesura, barely resembles the second, with its stumbling, repetitiveness. These two versions of the same passage provide a final example of Chandler’s use of repetition in this way:
Then a naval gun went off in my ear and my head was a large pink firework exploding into the vault of the sky and scattering slow and pale, and then dark, into the waves. Blackness ate me up. (p. 633, ‘Bay City Blues’36)
That was all I knew. The scene exploded into fire and darkness. I didn’t even remember being slugged. Fire and darkness and just before the darkness a sharp flash of pain. (p. 189, The Lady in the Lake)
The synonyms of the first passage (‘dark’, ‘blackness’) are replaced by a skillful repetition of ‘darkness’, even of the paradoxical formula ‘fire and darkness’. Again, we see the sentences broken up (in emulation of Hemingway, very probably37), and a very interesting non-sentence is introduced, by the omission of a verb in the final line. Momentum is denied, the past forgotten, ignorance declared, and we cannot tell what is light or dark. Chandler’s ideology of stasis can be seen complete in this short passage, and it is the stylistic and linguistic aspect of the construction which makes this clear most effectively.

We have seen that Chandler’s work is coloured by his expatriation, but we ought more fully to examine this aspect of the dialectical impulse in his work. Chandler's curious view of tradition and modernity came, in the greater part, from the conflict between the ideologies and language of the land of his birth (America) and those of the country in which he was educated (England). As Robert B Parker38 suggests, there is a ‘frontier’ mentality in Chandler (p. 10), and he enacts the process of migration to the west, from the old world, in his move from London to Los Angeles. Only, it is impossible for him to see the ‘new world as a garden’ (p. 17) in anything but the most pessimistic manner:

The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialise in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And in Beverley Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom. (p. 5, ‘The Little Sister)
In American language, however, Chandler finds a cause for celebration, albeit a characteristically qualified celebration:
The merits of American style are less numerous than its defects and annoyances, but they are more powerful... It is a fluid language, like Shakespearian English, and easily takes in new words, new meanings for old words, and borrows at will and at ease from other languages. (p. 80, Speaking)
This view encapsulates a dialectic, between a formalised literary language and American English (a spoken variant, still evolving), and Chandler certainly felt that the success of his style was a result of the effort he expended on learning American English: ‘I had to learn American just like a foreign language... I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialism, snide talk to any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately’ (Speaking, p. 80). Here at least, the synthesis does not fail, as a critical, classically educated ear, brings itself to bear upon an ‘off-beat language’, resulting in a concentrated form of that language. The casual nature of spoken slang is replaced by an absolute deliberateness, whilst its vocabulary, syntax and grammar are maintained.

There is a point at which the dialectic of past and present overlaps with another of the most important conflicts in Chandler’s work, that of realism and fantasy; if we consider Chandler in relationship to Conrad, we see that this point of overlap is present in both, and that it is a result of their situation, in a kind of limbo between ‘the old and new worlds’39. Past and present are represented in geographical terms, if you will, and the impulse to document realistically comes as a result of the alienated quality of the expatriate experience. It is, perhaps, an attempt to come to terms with the new landscape by recreating it, and so possessing it.

When we consider the passages above, from The Lady in the Lake and ‘Bay City Blues’, it is easy to see why critics like Beekman (p. 90) and Rabinowitz (p. 127) have drawn parallels between Chandler and Conrad, although neither makes the logical step of attributing a general resemblance between the two writers to the similarities in their experiences of expatriation. Jameson observes that ‘the writer of an adopted language is already a kind of stylist by force of circumstance’40, and it is this concentration of style which results in the concentration of effect in the two writers. Both writers view the world through alien eyes, and so create particularly vivid visions of the worlds in which they find themselves. Compare these passages, from Almayers Folly41 and The Lady in the Lake:

To the north and south of it rose other islets, joyous in their brilliant colouring of green and yellow, and on the main coast the sombre line of mangrove bushes ended to the southward in the reddish cliffs of Tanjong Mirrah. (p. 147)
Kingsley looked as big as a horse in the creamy Shetland sports coat with a green and yellow scarf around the neck inside the loosely turned up collar. A dark reddish-brown snapbrim hat was pulled low on his forehead. (p. 172)
Both are so filled with colour that a dual effect is achieved. Firstly, the primary and secondary colours (yellow, green, red) employed in both passages refuse to sink back, or become muted, and thus make these images peculiarly concrete. We might go further, in fact, and say that they seem to stand out from the page. The second, and contrary achievement of this style is its absolute unreality: in other words, tangibility is achieved at the cost of plausibility. Chandler’s novels have about them the air of the Chinese wood-block print, in these bold blocks of colour, as opposed to the respectably faded colours of a painting.

This struggle between realism and fantasy is Chandler’s other great dialectic. We have already seen that he thought the past fantasy, the present reality, and so the two great dialectics are more closely intertwined than might at first seem to be the case. Patricia Highsmith takes the realistic nature of his work for granted42, whilst other critics have rightly noted that Chandler professes a desire to create realistic art, whilst failing to define his terms, or achieve that aim. Rabinowitz, for example, declares Chandler’s criticism of ‘the genteel English school for its lack of mimetic realism’ to be ‘a false issue’, on the grounds that neither Chandler nor Agatha Christie ‘portrays a world particularly close to the... one in which most of us live’ (p. 122). Jacques Barzun43 gives several examples of implausible action in novels of the ‘tough mode’, concluding that characters like Marlowe are ‘guaranteed indestructible’ (p. 161).

Some critics, however, have been perceptive enough to see in these contrary views an alternative formulation of the problem, which concurs with a dialectical analysis of Chandler’s work. In a critical frame of mind, we too recognise the implausibility of the action in which Marlowe takes part, and yet so skillful is Chandler’s ability to create what Poe called the ‘air of method’44 that as we read, we do not question. Somehow, Chandler combines realism and fantasy. Peter Humm45 describes Chandler’s technique as one which presents ‘the competing claims of consciousness and imagination’, and which combines ‘a photographically vivid description with a sense of the individual personality’. In other words, one which establishes a balance between an objective and subjective conception of the world. On the one hand, there is sufficient apparently factual material to convince us (‘the air of method’): police procedure (The High Window, p. 94), the names of cars (‘a black Mercury convertible’ (The Little Sister, p. 179)), and guns (Farewell, My Lovely p. 16), and detailed, convincing addresses (‘Idaho Street... No. 449’; (The Little Sister, p. 19)). On the other hand, there is a sense of things being out of scale in relation to each other (Moose Malloy is, in one of Chandler’s most famous comparisons, ‘not much wider than a beer truck’ (Farewell, My Lovely, p. 7)). Violence, too, is often portrayed with a sense of the unreal, of the absurd:

The brown man came almost dancing towards me across the floor... The fist with the weighted tube inside it went through my spread hands like a stone... I had the stunned moment of shock when the lights danced and the visible world went out of focus (p. 183, The Big Sleep)
Chandler’s primary tool in maintaining this balance (in creating his magic reality) is just the type of hyperbolic simile quoted above in the description of Moose Malloy. ‘The similes... move the detective story away from Hammet’s materialism to an emphasis on perception... [and] perception has a property of magic, a transformative power over the material world’ writes Paul Skenazy (p. 42, 1982), and in this we find an echo of Billy Wilder’s casual summation, quoted earlier in this essay. There is, indeed, a strange conjuring trick, a sleight of hand, involved in magical comparisons like these: ‘What a wit. Like a humming bird’s beak.’ (p. 95, The Little Sister); ‘He held an empty smeared glass in his hand. It looked as if somebody had been keeping goldfish in it.’ (p. 65, The High Window); ‘Her voice came from her mouth sounding like a worn out phonograph record’ (p. 101, Farewell My Lovely). Each of these functions as a simile ought to, evoking an image by comparison, only within the genre, where the dominant mode is an austere factual descriptiveness, such lines posess a greater impact. They make the commonplace exotic, create distortions of scale, provoke strange visions. The glass which is like a goldfish bowl, for instance, is at once a real object, and an absurdly exaggerated version of that object. We sense in it the collision of reality and imagination, and so Chandler’s claim to mimetic realism is disproved, and yet also reaffirmed. He does not deny the action of the imagination, the realm of fantasy, but rather makes it a part of his narrative voice: he rarely uses metaphor, so that the qualifying ‘like’, the tell-tale evidence of a self-conscious comparison, is almost always present. The imagination is brought back into reality, is crystallised as a fact of perception, and, at the same time, reality is brought wholly into the realm of the imagination. The subjective and objective are combined in a single imaginative act.

It is interesting that so many of Chandler’s similes use animals, flowers, or other aspects of the natural world as their comparatives. Take, for example, the ‘humming bird’ from the passage above, or this from The Long Goodbye: ‘he made an expressive gesture with his hand, a curving motion outwards, a pause, then a gentle falling, like a leaf fluttering to the ground’ (p. 114). It is here, I suspect that we find yet another point of overlap between the dialectic of past and present, and that of real and unreal. What is Chandler’s lament for progress if it is not a mourning of the loss of the frontier, for the days when there was always somewhere further west to go. Robert B Parker writes that Americans saw the ‘new world as a garden’, as a new Eden. A paradise just beyond the horizon, as lush and as perfect as the one from which we fell. These similes show us glimpses of that lost future, and of an imagined past.

A further, and final, level on which Chandler’s novels play games with realism is in his self-conscious self-referentiality. We have already seen the way in which he makes allusions, provoking in us an awareness of the textuality of his own work. But, in places, he is more explicit yet. There are numerous passages, such as the ‘Hemingway’ section from ‘Farewell, My Lovely, quoted above, which make reference to the act of writing itself, and specifically to the ‘pulp’ genre. There is, for example, this, from the The Lady in the Lake:

‘I’ve never liked this scene,’ I said. ‘Detective confronts murderer. Murderer produces gun, points same at detective. Murderer tells detective the whole sad story, with the idea of shooting him at the end of it. Thus wasting a lot of valuable time, even if in the end murderer did shoot detective. Only murderer never does. Something always happens to prevent it. The gods don’t like this scene either. They always manage to spoil it.’ (p. 187)
Consider, also, this example from The High Window: ‘"You ought to lay off the fluff and get your teeth into something solid, like a pulp magazine," I told him, just to be friendly’ (p. 88). Do these passages contribute to, or detract from, a sense of realism? On one level, like all of the literary allusion in the novels, they make us aware of the text before us; in them, we hear the voice of the author breaking through. Within the text, however, they reinforce our sense of the reality of things. These are people outside, and therefore able to comment upon, fiction. They, like us, read detective novels, and so obey formulas knowingly. Again, this difficult balance between reality and fiction has a vivifying, complexifying effect.

Chandler’s writing depends upon juxtaposition, and upon unresolved conflicts. It is difficult to say whether his books are pessimistic or hopeful, nostalgic or modern, realistic or fantastic. He provides us, in every simile, and every confrontation, with a thesis and antithesis, and leaves the formation of a synthesis to us, his readers; and in this is his final subversion of the genre. If the mystery writer’s aim is to tell us ‘whodunnit’ before we guess, then that is a responsibility which Chandler abdicates choosing only to ask questions of us.

R.N. 1999


1. Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness; Hawthorne; Poe; Melville (London, 1958), p. 15.

2. Raymond Chandler, Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, 2nd edn, rev. with introduction by Paul Skenazy (Berkely, 1997: first published Boston, 1962). Hereafter Speaking.

3. Ivan Moffat, ‘On The Fourth Floor of Paramount: Interview With Billy Wilder’, in The World of Raymond Chandler, ed. Miriam Gross (London, 1977), pp. 43-51. Hereafter World of. Wilder and Chandler shared an office whilst working on a screenplay for the film version of James M Cain’s Double Indemnity.

4. Miriam Gross, ‘Preface’, in World of. No page numbers given.

5. Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, in The Chandler Collection Volume 3 (London, 1984), pp. 175-196 (p. 175).

6. ‘What is history, said Napoleon, but a fable agreed upon?’. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘History’, in ‘Essays and Poems’, ed. Tony Tanner (London, 1995; essay first published 1841), pp. 3-22 (p. 6).

7. Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane (London, 1981), pp. 2-3 (p. 3).

8. See the protagonist of Chandler’s first published story, ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ whose name we find ‘just happened to be Mallory’. See The Smell of Fear, 3rd edn (London, 1988; first published 1965), pp. 15-54 (p. 15).

9. Raymond Chandler, The High Window (Harmondsworth, 1951, repr. 1999; first published 1943).

10. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (Harmondsworth, 1948, repr. 1999; first published 1939).

11. Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake (Harmondsworth, 1952, repr. 1989; first published 1944).

12. Paul Skenazy, ‘The New Wild West: The Urban Mysteries of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler‘ (Boise, 1982).

13. Raymond Chandler, ‘Farewell My Lovely‘ (Harmondsworth 1949, repr. 1999; first published 1940).

14. Eric Homberger, ‘The Man of Letters (1908-1912)’, in World of, pp. 7-18 (p. 9).

15. Daniel R Schwarz, Reading Joyce’s Ulysses (London, 1987).

16. D H Lawrence, The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Harmondsworth, 1995; first published 1915).

17. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, ‘Introduction’ to the above, pp. xiii-xxxi (p. xiii): ‘Lawrence found in the relations between man and woman ‘the problem of today’’. With some qualification the same could be said of Chandler. He certainly grapples with the issue of the break-down of masculinity, and has Marlowe show revulsion at lady-like men: he is disgusted by Arthur Gwynne Geiger’s bisexuality (‘The fag... was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men’ (The Big Sleep, p. 99)), for example.

18. Raymond Chandler, Playback (Harmondsworth 1961, repr. 1989; first published 1958).

19. Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (London, 1976). A famous and thorough biography, with a great deal of critical content.

 20. E M Beekman, ‘Raymond Chandler and an American Genre’, in The Critical Responses to Raymond Chandler, ed. J K Van Dover (Westport, 1995) pp. 89-99 (p. 97): ‘at their [the novels’] close little has been resolved despite the fact the murderer has been found. All of them end of a note of dissatisfaction.’ There are even occasions when the murderer is not found, as in the case of the murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor in The Big Sleep. Chandler himself wrote, of The Little Sister, that ‘The plot creaks like a broken shutter in an October wind’ (Speaking, p. 220). A most perceptive comment, and one with particular relevance to my argument, can be found in Peter J Rabinowitz, ‘Rats Behind the Wainscotting: Politics, Convention and Chandler’s The Big Sleep’, in the anthology mentioned above, pp. 117-134 (p124): ‘while few readers miss the promises held out by the imagery of Marlowe’s knighthood, a curious number have failed to realize that they are never fulfilled’.

21. Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Genres in Discourse‘, Transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, 1990; first published in French in 1976), p. 27. Todorov takes Propp’s analysis of the story ‘The Swan Geese’, and rewrites it. The process of equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium is ‘the very definition of narrative: one cannot imagine a narrative that fails to contain at least a part of it’. Chandler, however, suspends us somewhere in the middle phase.

 22. Raymond Chandler, ‘Introduction’, in The Chandler Collection Volume 3 (London, 1984), pp. 9-12. This short essay was previously published, misleadingly, under the title ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ in 1950, as an introduction to the collection of short stories of the same name. As Chandler had already published a better known, and better, essay of the same name in 1944, most editions including this essay remove the title.

23. There is a quiet echo of Joyce’s attempt to create a novel which exceeds the boundaries of the form in Chandler’s suggestion that ‘To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack’ (see note 21).

24. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. Tim Seward (Cambridge, 1995; first published 1860).

25. ‘In a way, The Big Sleep functions as a Bildungsroman: Marlowe learns about the moral illness of the modern world and his own inability to function within it’, writes an anonymous essayist in ‘An Introduction to The Big Sleep‘, available from the internet at

26. The Little Sister (see note 29), for example, follows closely the pattern of innocence and education, as Marlowe unmasks the apparent innocent Orfamay Quest, and is confronted by, and conquers, an embodiment of female sexuality in Miss Gonzales. She is so absurdly sexual (‘Reeking with sex. Utterly beyond the moral laws of this or any world I could imagine’(p. 246)) that Marlowe begins to seem virgin-like in comparison.

27. Tom S Reck, ‘Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles’ in The Critical Responses to Raymond Chandler, pp. 109-115. See p. 113.

28. Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (Harmondsworth, 1959, repr. 1999; first published 1953).

29. Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister (Harmondsworth, 1955, repr. 1989; first published 1949).

30. Stephen Knight, ‘A Hard Cheerfulness: An Introduction to Raymond Chandler’, in American Crime Fiction, ed. Brian Docherty (Basingstoke, 1988), pp. 71-87 (p. 79): Marlowe shows ‘distaste for the rich.. he sees them merely as lifeless... [and] finds the great houses of the rich like mostly like prisons’. Tom S Reck (see note 27) also comments that ‘the rich... are Chandler’s special enemies’ (p. 113).

31. Paul Skenazy, The New Wild West, p. 33: Chandler ‘judges the changes in California... in contrast to idealized presumptions about this world which come as part of his persistent image of it as an alternative to the class-bound hierarchical systems of social relations and language of his youth’.

32. R W Lid, ‘Philip Marlowe Speaking’, in The Critical Responses to Raymond Chandler, pp. 43-63.

33. Two versions of ‘The Poodle Springs Story’ are available, the first in Raymond Chandler Speaking, pp. 251-264, the second as part of a dubious ‘collaboration’ between Chandler and Robert B Parker, a succesful crime novelist in the Chandler vein: Poodle Springs (London, 1990). References in the essay are to the version in Raymond Chandler Speaking.

34. David Lehman, The Perfect Murder: a study in detection (New York, 1989), p. 153.

35. In The Chandler Collection Volume 3 (London, 1984), pp. 383-428.

36. In The Chandler Collection Volume 3 (London, 1984), pp. 605-670.

37. Compare these extracts with the clipped sentences of A Farewell to Arms (London, 1977, repr. 1990; first published 1929), p. 163: ‘The piece of timber swung in the current and I held it with one hand. I looked at the bank. It seemed to be going very fast. There was much wood in the stream. The water was very cold. I held onto the timber with both hands and let it take me along. The shore was out of sight now.’

38. The Private Eye in Hammett and Chandler (Northridge, 1984). Originally a doctoral thesis, published in this limited edition after the author had risen to fame with his own crime novels. Frustratingly, footnotes and other critical apparatus were removed for the book publication, in an attempt to make the work more appealing to the general reader.

39. See note 1.

40. Fredric Jameson, ‘On Raymond Chandler’, in The Critical Responses to Raymond Chandler, pp. 65-87 (p. 66).

41. Joseph Conrad, Almayers Folly, ed. Owen Knowles (London, 1995).

42. Her introduction to The World of Raymond Chandler (pp. 1-6) is typical of the slovenly, off-the-cuff style which most Chandler criticism adopts. She writes a charming encomium, whilst seeming barely to have read the novels.

43. ‘The Illusion of the Real’, in World of, pp. 159-163.

44. Poe is cited by Skenazy in The New Wild West, p. 6.

45. ‘Camera Eye/Private Eye’, American Crime Fiction, ed. Brian Docherty (Basingstoke, 1988), pp. 23-38.