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An American Gentleman

By Max Dunbar.

A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler: A Life, Tom Williams, Aurum 2012

‘I’m afraid the book isn’t going to be any good to you. No action, no likeable characters, no nothing. The detective does nothing.’

Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Blanche Knopf, on The High Window, March 1942

Crime writing can make you rich, if you get it right. Raymond Chandler achieved worldwide fame with what seemed on superficial reading like standard gritty procedurals. For sixty years genre writers have been repeating the formula and hoping to strike gold. I was up in the Harrogate crime festival this year. Reading through the author biographies in the festival literature, I was struck by how many of the featured authors followed a reliable and predictable structure. There will be a detective, who doesn’t always play it by the book, who has perilous alcohol and relationship problems but at the end of the day – damnit – always gets results. There will be a victim, generally a simon-pure young woman dismembered in lengthy detail within the first few chapters. This will have been committed by the least likely suspect, whose identity is revealed after the reader has jumped through the hoops of red herrings and double bluffs. There will be flashbacks and prologues in portentous italics.

I love genre fiction, and agree with the writer Alex Marwood that ‘literary is just another genre’. But crime writers work in a universe where you can do practically anything. As Carl Hiaasen said: ‘All novels are about crime. You’d be hard pressed to find any novel that does not have an element of crime.’ So it surprises me that contemporary novelists so often go for the plodding wordsearch of the mystery procedural – intricately done, but (as Christopher Booker says of Agatha Christie) the denounements leave you hollow, like the feeling you get after spending a hour successfully completing a crossword. Storytelling is essential, but too many genre writers take the view that story is all you need. The writers in one Harrogate panel were more or less unanimous that the ability to write well didn’t matter and plot is all that counts. But the bare bones aren’t enough to make a book, any more than the skeletal structure is enough to make a functioning human being. This is why so many mass market novels prove contrived, boring, and irritating to the point of unreadability.

The inverse manifestation of this fallacy is that literary writers and critics become convinced that genre fiction has nothing to offer and its writers have no integrity or talent. Stephen King explains the problem:

Raymond Chandler may be recognised now as an important voice in twentieth-century literature, an early voice describing the anomie of urban life in the years after World War II, but there are plenty of critics who will reject such a judgement out of hand. He’s a hack! they cry indignantly. A hack with pretensions! The worst kind! The kind who thinks he can pass for one of us!

Critics who try to rise above this intellectual hardening of the arteries usually meet with limited success. Their colleagues may accept Chandler into the company of the great, but are apt to seat him at the foot of the table. And there are always those whispers: Came out of the pulp tradition, you know, carries himself well for one of those, doesn’t he?… did you know he wrote for Black Mask in the thirties, yes, regrettable…

Chandler was a late developer. He began writing seriously in his early forties and wasn’t seriously published until his fifties. This was a place and time when writers did things. Chandler served in the Canadian Highlanders during World War One, then worked as an LA oil executive. Even if you haven’t read a Chandler book, you feel like you have, and recognise his motifs in others – the sizzling streets, constant drinking, smouldering murderesses, the off-key yet somehow timeless similes (my favourite, from The Long Goodbye: ‘A white night for me is as rare as a fat postman.’)But long before he wrote for Black Mask, there was a romantic, even classical sensibility to Chandler’s outlook.

This most American of writers was educated at an English public school. Dulwich College was not in the league of Eton or Harrow, but it was a perfectly respectable bourgois crammer: P G Wodehouse was a pupil a few years earlier. There Chandler read voraciously, and composed romantic poetry. He returned to England when he was widowed, and developed relationships with literary Londoners, including Natasha Spender, wife of the poet Stephen. And it is arguable that in the Marlowe novels he implanted the code of honour of the public schools (‘Play up, play up, and play the game’) into the sweltering grifthouse of mid-century Los Angeles. From his essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

This romantic, even chivalric attitude coloured Chandler’s relationships with women. His old man was a worthless drunk, who beat Chandler’s mother. His biographer Tom Williams contends:

The consequence of witnessing domestic violence was to wire into Ray’s brain a desire to protect women, starting with his mother. As this trait emerged in him, the personality of his great creation, the detective Philip Marlowe, also began to form. The phrase ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, used by Ray to describe Marlowe, also suggests how he viewed himself: chivalrous, a protector of women, but not in a purely abstract, romantic sense.

Chandler wrote that ‘Women are so damned vulnerable to all sorts of hurts.’ A contemporary feminist might accuse him of ‘white-knighting’. He comes off a man who loved female company, but had little interest in sex. Analysing Chandler’s neophyte verse, Williams claims that, for Chandler, ‘to love purely was to love without sex’ and there’s a suggestion that he was still a virgin when he married Cissy Pascal, a New York ex-model with an ambiguous past and eighteen years on him. Williams describes Cissy as ‘a runaway and a bohemian – a twentieth century woman… a beautiful redhead with clear white skin, almost like porcelain, and the shapely, firm body of a much younger woman.’ Did it ever occur to Chandler that he had married a character out of one of his own novels?

Williams does not write half as well as his subject. Here he is on Chandler’s tender years: ‘As an adolescent male, Ray could be forgiven for taking an interest in sex.’ At this point, Chandler is spending time in Paris, and Williams reminds us that ‘A year abroad would usually be seen as an opportunity for a young man to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, and being away from home and unsupervised facilitated many a young man’s deflowering.’ Bet you didn’t figure that.

But I won’t mock Williams any further, for A Mysterious Something in the Light is an exhaustive biography and resource work, and one that makes us feel for the subject. There are fascinating chapters on Chandler’s hostile relationships with the studios, on his alcoholism (‘I start off with a drink of white wine and end up drinking two bottles of Scotch a day. Then I stop eating’) and his dissolution after Cissy’s death. These closing chapters are the most affecting of all as Chandler ricochets between London and America, getting sicker and drunker and suicidal, and still trying to live out romantic fantasies. It’s the story of a deeply sad and lonely man, heading into the big sleep.

Williams has what John Irving called ‘the meekness of a biographer’. He stands aside and lets Chandler’s work and life speaks for itself. The chapter ‘No Job for Amateurs’ discusses Chandler’s views on fiction and literature, and it rescues his character and reputation from the hack pastiche to which generations of imitators have confined it. As Williams writes in the afterword:

During his lifetime many of his readers instinctively believed that Chandler was someone far tougher, much younger and certainly less tweedy than Ray in fact was. As time distanced the fans from the man, this was exaggerated. Had they read the letters they would have encountered a very different version of Raymond Chandler and they would have seen his endless fascination with the craft of writing, his frustration with Hollywood, with publishers and with agents, and, even, his love of cats.

‘The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average – or only slightly above average – detective story does,’ Chandler wrote. ‘The fellow who can write you a vivid and colourful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labour of breaking down unbreakable alibis.’ The Marlowe novels tell a story, and tell it in fabulous accomplished prose that opens up the hole in the paper. Chandler’s talent lives on not in the hack procedurals but in the language and stories of Christopher Brookmyre and Carl Hiaasen and, I’d argue, the lesser known writers M J Hyland and Jenn Ashworth. His backdrop of a corrupt city or system can be recognised in David Simon’s The Wire, as can his moral ambiguity – ‘In my own mind I don’t ever think anyone is a villain,’ Chandler told Ian Fleming in a radio interview. It’s this attitude and openness that provides the hope for literary revival of a popular art.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 20th, 2012.