"The Case for Raymond Chandler"

By Allen Barra


Salon Staff
August 9, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Nice piece, but Barra could have amplified the case for Chandler by also noting:

1. His humor. Marlowe's ironic tone is still, 60 years later, funny.

2. His detail. Marlowe tells what everyone is wearing, what every house and garden looks like, what furniture and carpeting and wall decorations are in view.

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3. His dialogue. Marlowe's lines are fairly straightforward, but the tough guys and hard cases and cops speak an argot that is colorful and rich (even if it was made up). What other author has a character, instead of saying, "I'm tired of discussing this," put it, "I got enough chinning with you to last a lifetime"?

4. His romanticism. Marlowe offers a case study in the truism that a cynic is a disappointed romantic. Thus does the cold professional Sherlock Holmes become the regretful, self-conscious "hard-boiled" dick who has an emotional opinion about everything, beginning with himself.

Now if only Chandler could work in some sex ...

-- Ellis Weiner

A lovely article. For many of us, the case for Chandler has already been made, many times over. His influence is -- literally, at this point -- immeasurable. However, this anecdote: I distinctly remember my first encounter with Chandler's writing. I was a clerk in a public library, fiddling with our unwieldy and uncatalogued collection of "borrow, donate, replenish" paperbacks. There was a cover that caught my attention -- a 1973 printing of a Ballantine paperback. The cover art by Tom Adams was darkly lush, with tropical flowers and a hummingbird in the foreground, the evening Pacific in the background. So happens the cover perfectly suited the contents; luckily for me, the book was "Farewell, My Lovely," perhaps Chandler's most intricately calibrated piece of fiction. At the time, I thought I was quite smart and well read, but nothing had prepared me for the stuff within. There's no good way to make this long story short, except to say that reading Chandler completely changed my notions about literature and opened an entirely new world to me.

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Later, I would come to appreciate film noir, and film in general, precisely because of my experiences with Chandler's writings. I have always been offended by the tendency, in the "academy," to relegate Chandler to the ghetto of "mystery/detective" authors. He is among the very best writers in our language.

-- Kathleen Keefe

While I generally appreciated Allen Barra's appraisal of the work of Raymond Chandler, I think that, while arguing against the position to some degree, he falls into the high- vs. low-art assumptions of which he accuses many literary critics of Chandler. This binary understanding of "literary prestige = success" forces Barra to ultimately dismiss Chandler's work as amateurish and short-sighted.

Barra also forgets why the novelist continues to be reprinted today and was such a valuable commodity in the Hollywood studio system: his prose, especially his dialogue and idiomatic expressions, has an enthusiasm and originality unparalleled among 20th century American writers -- period. And, unlike such canonical American figures as Faulkner or Dos Passos, Chandler is a fun (while not extremely demanding, unless you want him to be) read.

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Talk to any publisher: High sales will get a writer reprinted faster than critical praise; sadly, these two forms of "success" are often taken as mutually exclusive even by those who wish to "recover" authors from the dustbin of irrelevance. The dark, distinct worlds of Hammett and Chandler were, in many ways, historically unique responses to economic and political unrest that, subsequently, resonated with contemporary readers. This kind of success -- we should admit -- is no crime.

-- Kyle Edwards

Chandler was so much the antithesis of a hack that he submitted his first story manuscript with justified margins. This done "by hand" on a typewriter!

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The entangled plotlines of the novels (Chandler himself couldn't remember who killed the anonymous chauffeur in "The Big Sleep") are partly explained by Chandler's technique in composing them: the novels are largely cobbled together from scenes and themes in the earlier stories. One of the scholarly tomes on Chandler actually includes a source guide connecting each novel to its short story roots.

It should not be possible to write about Chandler without acknowledging the overwhelming influence of his alcoholism. For a writer of such precision, the need to work in the tiny windows of sober time available to him more than explains Chandler's small output and occasional lapses.

-- John Coffin

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