People like me who have a Ph.D. in literature, who are professors of English, are thought in some quarters to have read nearly every well-known author's works. It comes as a surprise to many that every day I continue to discover all the things I don't know and all the books I never read.
So it is with Raymond Chandler, whose style and art were praised by W. H. Auden among many others as the best of the hard-boiled crime novelists, surpassing even Dashiell Hammett, from whom he learned a great deal. Yet until now I never thought of either crime writer as worthy of my time.
A basic academic question, interestingly posed in last week's New Yorker, is whether the wall that divides serious literary figures, the big guns, from the popular writers is still solid. In the case of writers like Chandler, whose style is wonderful, the question is moot.
Chandler was among those "escapist" pulp writers, as they are often called, who had a great respect for his sentences. He re-wrote huge blocks of his stories rather than edit them, thus spending a lot of time that the publishing world might call wasted. I would call this time well spent. He only produced seven novels, but his dialogue and descriptive detail provide models for any aspiring writer.
I am reading the 1939 classic The Big Sleep, where the weaknesses in plot (two stories sort of welded together) are more than compensated for by the ironic narrative of Philip Marlowe, the private eye in L.A. Or I should say by the master stylist who created Marlowe.
Chandler, raised and educated in England, well read in the classics and foreign languages, was part of the sizeable British colony in Hollywood in the thirties and thus something of an outsider to American society. This alone is remarkable, for the tone of the cynical detective who has seen it all is something Chandler had to learn, mostly by reading, also by interviewing cops and steeping himself in the seamy side of L.A.
Consider the opening descriptions in which Marlowe is summoned by a dying oil tycoon, who "dragged his voice up from the bottom of a well." The old man "spoke slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last pair of stockings." We then meet the two lascivious daughters of the tycoon, one whose teeth "glittered like knives."
This is the kind of writing that makes me turn the pages despite the sordid details, the sensationalism and the shaky plot structure. Some of the imagery is strained, but each scene is so well done, with lively descriptive details, that I can see why Chandler is so highly regarded; and I can see that the line separating highbrow lit from popular fiction often disappears.
He is a writer who takes his time with each sentence, each paragraph, while moving the story along at a decent pace. I am sorry it has taken me so long to discover him.