Raymond Chandler on Writing

This article was first published in The Reader, issue 26. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, September 2007.

Raymond Chandler on Writing

By Chris Routledge

Crime writer Raymond Chandler did not have a high opinion of literary critics. On January 19, 1946 he wrote to fellow crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner: “The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson.” He was no less scathing about the “reading public,” who he thought had been taught to read by “brute force” and could be sold “significant literature … by exactly the same methods as are used to sell toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles.” Chandler’s definition of what constitutes literature was more broad. His letter1 to Gardner continues:

When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball. … Dumas Père had it. Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it …

Later, in a letter to Frederick Lewis Allen on May 7, 1948, he put this more clearly, arguing that the editors of the pulp magazines were wrong about their readers:

My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, though they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description …

Chandler’s career as a writer started late. He was born in Chicago in 1888 and moved to England with his mother in 1900, where they lived with his grandmother and an unmarried aunt in Dulwich, South London. Like his near contemporaries P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forrester he attended Dulwich College, where he excelled at languages. He travelled in Europe for a while and eventually began a career as a literary reviewer, essayist, and–in his own opinion–the worst reporter on the Daily Express. He also wrote what he later described as “Grade B. Georgian” poetry. Chandler finally gave up on his literary aspirations in 1912 and moved back to the United States where he settled in California.

After serving in the trenches of France with the Canadian Army, in 1919 Chandler started work first as an accountant for the Dabney Oil Company and later, when Dabney’s was taken over, as internal auditor for the South Basin Oil Company, at that time second in size only to Shell. Years later he wrote to his publisher Hamish Hamilton: “I detested business life, but in spite of that I finally became an officer or director of half a dozen independent oil corporations.” (letter, November 10, 1950). His dislike of the job began to show and by the late 1920s he was drunk a lot of the time. He was eventually fired in 1932 when he was 44 years old. By then his wife Cissy was 61 and the Great Depression was in full swing.

But instead of looking for another job in the oil industry Chandler changed his entry in the Los Angeles phone book to “Writer” and signed up for a correspondence course on how to be one. With a $100 a month stipend from his friends Edward and Paul Lloyd he began working on a short story for the pulp magazine Black Mask. The story was entitled “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” and appeared in the December 1933 issue. It took him five months to write and he was paid $180. After that, he said, he “never looked back,” but he wrote slowly and made very little money from his stories.

Exactly how Chandler made the switch from English Edwardian literary critic and poet to hard-boiled American pulp modernist is a great mystery. His biographer Frank McShane describes his transformation as “an extraordinary leap from the turn-of-the-century prose of Saki’s London to the vernacular of 1930s Los Angeles without stopping anywhere in between.”2 There is no evidence that he began to think like a twentieth-century writer until he was well over 40. Yet Chandler is to urban California in the 1940s and 1950s as Balzac is to nineteenth-century Paris. Los Angeles certainly had mean streets before Chandler wrote about them, but they were not called that.

Like most writers Chandler had very strong and well formed opinions on language and prose style. He was passionate about writing fiction that people wanted to read. His notebooks include lists of American slang terms, real and invented, and lists of analogies and metaphors which he would check off when he used them. He wrote a few critical essays of which “The Simple Art of Murder” and “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story” are the best known. But he reserved most of this theorising for his letters, many of which were written late at night while Cissy slept.

The possibilities offered by American English seem to have come as a revelation to him. He admired its dynamism and its lack of “purity,” as this comment from a 1937 letter to the editor of the Fortnightly Intruder shows:

The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. 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 talk about them.

It is hard to imagine Chandler the Edwardian critic writing something like that, yet as Frank MacShane points out Chandler’s later style is influenced by his earlier self. Using American spoken English for dialogue and British English sentence structures for description, Chandler did something in his short stories that was quite different from anyone else: “What gives Chandler his particular flavor is that while using British English sentence structure, he also employs a predominantly American vocabulary.”3 By 1937 he had a reputation as a writer who pushed the limits of what was allowed in the formulaic world of the pulp magazines. He wrote in his introduction to the short story collection The Simple Art of Murder (1950) that “To exceed the limits of the formula without destroying it is the dream of every writer who is not a hopeless hack.”

Chandler was certainly not a hopeless hack. By 1938 when he was working on The Big Sleep he had learned all he needed to know about writing for the pulp magazines. It was as a novelist, through the first-person narrative of his series detective Philip Marlowe, that Chandler’s voice really matured. The hard edge to Marlowe’s descriptive voice and his dismissive wise-cracks fitted right in with America’s tough urban landscape and perhaps also tapped into the self-image of Chandler’s mostly male audience. The narrative of the novels allows Marlowe to control not only what the reader sees and hears, but also threats to his own integrity as a character. Marlowe is famous for his put-downs, such as this one from The Big Sleep:

… she snapped “I don’t like your manners.”
“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. “I didn’t ask to see you … I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

Of course language can’t control the outside world but it does allow Marlowe to maintain a distance from the people, places, and events he describes. While others submit to the moral emptiness of the modern world, Marlowe retreats to his shell of words and won’t come out.

Chandler, like Marlowe, had plenty to be defensive about. He was irritated by people who would ask him when he was going to write a serious novel and his confidence as a writer was often shaky. Writing not long after Cissy’s death in December 1954 Chandler told Leonard Russell (December 29, 1954): “It is my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything really worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her.”

Of course Chandler achieved something much greater than is usually possible in a single book. He helped raise American vernacular language to the level of art, he established an image of Southern California that persists even into the twenty-first century, and in Philip Marlowe he made one of the twentieth century’s great literary creations. His novels have been made into films, they have been retold in comic strips, on television, and a million other places. They are the subject of parody and reverent homage; his titles–The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Good-Bye–are a gift to lazy headline writers. Chandler always wrote deliberately and with a sense that even in the most disposable pulp story quality was non-negotiable. Yet he felt that as a writer he was under appreciated, especially in America. The reason, he thought, was clear. On March 23, 1954 he wrote to Howard Moseley: “I might be the best writer in this country and with two exceptions I very likely am, but I’m still a mystery writer.”

1 All quotations from Chandler’s letters are from Frank MacShane (ed.) Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Columbia University Press, 1981.
2 MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986. pp. 17-18.
3 The Life of Raymond Chandler, p. 58.