January 10, 2010


Why Marlowe is still the chief of detectives: Fifty years after Raymond Chandler died, we need his ‘shop-soiled’ Galahad Philip Marlowe as much as ever to put our mixed-up world to rights. (Mick Hume, 12/30/09, Spiked Review of Books)

Chandler led the final charge in the American revolution, begun by pulp magazines such as Black Mask, that overthrew the old English-dominated order in the mystery novel. He had no time for the phoney plot twists and cardboard characters deployed by the likes of Agatha Christie in country house murders, and acknowledged Hammett as the writer who first ‘gave murder back to the people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. By the time George Orwell’s 1946 essay was bemoaning the ‘Decline of the English Murder’, Chandler had already buried that tired genre. As Marlowe says, ‘It’s not that kind of story… It’s just dark and full of blood.’

Barry Forshaw, whose books include The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and British Crime Writing: an Encyclopaedia, says ‘Chandler is the master. Hammett may have been the original progenitor of the hardboiled private eye novel, but Chandler refined the form to its nth degree.’ Mark Billingham, whose Tom Thorne novels have marked him out as a rising star of crime writing, thinks that without Chandler, British detective writers ‘would still be writing crime novels set in vicarages, in which the murder would be nice and bloodless and the culprit would almost certainly be lower-class or worse, foreign.’

The revolution in content was reflected in one of style. Chandler had little interest in plotting. When The Big Sleep was turned into a Hollywood movie, director Howard Hawks and star Humphrey Bogart could not agree if one character, the family chauffeur, had been murdered or committed suicide. They wrote to Chandler for clarification of the plot, ‘and dammit’, he later recalled, ‘I didn’t know either’. His interest was in human drama, character and emotion, and he brought them to life through simile-loaded description and dialogue as sharp as an ice pick in the back of the neck that has often been imitated but never bettered.

Ian Rankin, whose Rebus novels top many lists of detective writing, says that: ‘The opening paragraph of The Big Sleep is one of my favourite openings in all literature. Chandler famously saw his task as bringing crime fiction back to the mean streets from the stately homes of the English whodunit. But he did so with style and elegance, as befits a man with a classical English education.’

Chandler did more than update the detective novel. Most importantly he turned it into a moral mirror held up to American society. Despite famously advising aspiring writers that ‘when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns’, little of Chandler fits that simple stereotype. As American crime writer Jeffrey Deaver has noted, ‘There are conflicts aplenty in Philip Marlowe’s world, but they’re usually not the sort that can be solved with a bullet from a .38 or roundhouse punch to a thug’s chin.’

It was through his investigation of those human conflicts that Chandler’s work rose above other traditions in crime writing. Protesting about literary snobbishness towards crime writing, Chandler lashed out against the elitist categorisation of ‘significant literature’: ‘If you have to have significance… it is just possible that the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and yet most complete pattern of the tensions on which we live in this generation.’

This is the deeper enduring appeal of the Chandler crime novel: as a never-exhausted form for investigating the moral tensions and contradictions in the modern city and society, and for resolving them in a way that real life rarely allows.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 10, 2010 12:12 PM
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