Raymond Chandler Week

Raymond Chandler died fifty years ago this week and I have a piece about him and his ‘reverse romances’ at The Rumpus:

Marlowe is an Arthurian knight in a leaky convertible and General Sternwood chooses him restore order to his kingdom. At the beginning of the novel Marlowe looks up at the stained glass window above the door of the Sternwood mansion, where a knight is rescuing a naked woman who is tied to a tree, and decides that if he lived in the house he would have to get up there and do it himself. When he discovers Carmen Sternwood naked, drugged and insensible in the house of a pornographer he tries to help her. But it is understood from the beginning of the book that there is no hope of redemption for anyone involved. Later Marlowe makes a wrong move in a chess problem and declares: ‘It wasn’t a game for knights’.

‘Chandler’s Reverse Romances’ at The Rumpus.

More from me on Raymond Chandler here and on Dashiell Hammett, whose work he built on, here.

Crime Fiction Exotica

In the Observer today Tobias Jones writes about ‘crime fiction set abroad’, a category which I would have thought depends on where you live. I’m not entirely convinced by several of the claims made in this piece but Jones has a point about the international market for crime fiction that has recently opened up to British readers. Also in the article’s favour is that it begins with a quotation from Raymond Chandler who died fifty years ago this month:

Raymond Chandler once wrote of crime fiction that the “mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call ‘the olive in the Martini'”. You don’t order a Martini just for the olive, he implied, and you don’t read a whodunit merely to find out who did it. “The really good mystery,” he continued, “is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter.” Quite what a crime novel contains, other than “the olive”, varies: it can be anything from one-liners and wisecracks to social commentary and political opinion. In recent years a new fashion has emerged: crime writing has been spliced with travel-writing. Having an exotic backdrop is almost more important than the plot itself. There’s nothing new to crime books being set abroad: think Eric Ambler or Michael Dibdin. But what’s striking is the sheer number of them now being published. If you go into a bookshop looking for a crime novel, it’s actually easier to find one based abroad than in Britain. [Link]

Raymond Chandler's Advice to Writers

Writing is one of those things that looks easy but isn’t. Or at least just about everyone can write, but few can write in ways that people actually want to read. This explains the huge number of writers, agents, and editors offering free advice about writing on their blogs and websites. Free advice is fine. It’s certainly interesting to hear how other people work. I think proper mentoring and good editing are probably more useful, but nothing will help if the student’s attitude is all wrong.

Writers are a strange group of people. It takes a certain arrogance to assume that people will want to spend their valuable time reading what you have written. On the other hand writers also need to be able to see where they are failing, realise their weaknesses, and understand when they need to change what they are doing. Arrogance with a topping of humility and self-doubt. Imagine strawberry and Marmite ice-cream and you get an idea of how that works in practice.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler over the past few weeks as I do more or less annually and I came across this great writing advice in a letter he wrote on December 3rd 1957 to Wesley Hartley, a schoolteacher in California. Chandler wrote thousands of letters, using them in much the same way as many writers in 2009 use their blogs. Here’s what he has to say about learning to write fiction anyway. By the time he wrote this Chandler was a highly successful and famous writer, but he published his first full-length novel in 1939, aged 51. The interesting part for me is what he has to say about the writers he had advised in the past:

“… [As a young man] I couldn’t write fiction to save my life. I couldn’t get a character in or out of a room. I couldn’t even get his hat off. I learned to write fiction by a method which I have recommended to other young struggling writers I tried to help, but no soap. Everything they did had to be for sale. What I did was take a novelette, I think it was by [Erle Stanley] Gardner, and make a detailed synopsis of it. From this synopsis I wrote the story, then compared it with the original to see where he, Gardner, had got an effect and I had got nothing. I did this over and over with the same story. I think I did learn a great deal that way. My first novelette for Black Mask took me five months to write and I got $180 for it. …”

Raymond Chandler Invented Google

Quite a long time ago now–1998 in fact–I completed a PhD thesis on Raymond Chandler. At the time I was very pleased with it and I still am in some ways, but I never felt able to work it up into a book. Maybe I felt I’d said what I wanted to say; maybe I’d just had enough of it. I can’t remember anyway. I do remember making a couple of attempts to write about Chandler and failing miserably, which only made things worse. I’ve kept reading him though. I pick up one of the novels about once a year and I am always impressed. I think I’ve read The Long Good-Bye straight through ten or eleven times by now and dip into it regularly. Over the years I think what impresses me most about him though are the letters. Some of his finest writing is there. He’s playful, sarcastic, sad, tough, and just plain interesting to read, especially on the topic of writing itself. He knew it too. On August 12, 1953 Chandler wrote to his secretary and general help Juanita Messick: “Once in a while I run across one myself in the files, and I’m a little staggered if I happen to be the author of it to think I could have been so brilliant for no money.” 

So I consider myself fairly familiar with Chandler, but I was browsing through a battered old copy of the letters this afternoon and made a discovery. It’s not a new discovery by any means (it didn’t take long to find that these people already spotted it), but it is to me. In this letter to H.N. Swanson, March 14, 1953, Chandler parodies science fiction novels rather cleverly. But it also looks like he actually invents Google, or at least the word anyway:

“Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It’s written like this: ‘I checked out with K19 on Adabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timeprojector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs, using the other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice-cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me round and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough.'” [emphasis mine].

As if he wasn’t brilliant enough.