I am not a fan of murder mysteries, but the books of a few murder mystery writers do attract me because their books are great literature. One of those mystery writers is Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), the creator of Philip Marlow, the Los Angeles detective of the 1930’s and 1940’s, played by Humphrey Bogart in films.
Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. It was followed by others including Farewell My Lovely in 1940, The Little Sister in 1949, and The Long Goodbye in 1953. These books are noted as much for their style as for their mystery novel qualities.
Why are these books so good? What can we, as writers, learn from them?
The protagonist, Philip Marlow, talks to the reader. A first person point of view gives us insight into the thoughts of the detective, why he acts the way he does. Many great novels are in first person—Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, for example. A first person POV can allow us into the mind of a character naturally without a need for dialog. “You could know Bay City a long time without knowing Idaho Street. And you could know a lot of Idaho Street without knowing Number 449,” Marlow thinks.
Marlow, though highly intelligent, is an ordinary person whom readers can identify with. He needs to make money, so he needs to work, sometimes taking jobs which he later regrets. He is not a stuffy patrician. He lacks a college education, but he is street-wise. He is a person from a middle class social strata. “I put Orfamay Quest’s twenty hard-earned dollars in an envelope and wrote her name on it and dropped it in the desk drawer. I didn’t like the idea of running around loose with that much currency on me.”
Marlow thinks in figures of speech, using metaphors and similes as easily as Shakespeare’s Mercutio uses puns. Some are outlandish and humorous but others are discreet and insightful. “To say goodbye is to die a little.”
Marlow’s dialog is witty. “And now, Mr. Marlowe?” “You do remember me?” “I believe so.” “Do we take up where we left off–or have a new deal with a clean deck?”
Chandler’s prose is like Hemingway’s. “I laid [the pencil] down in the tray on the desk and dusted off my hands. I had all the time in the world. I looked out of the window. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything.” Subject, verb, direct object. Few adjectives. Fewer adverbs. Plain prose.
Marlow has a sense of humor, sometimes ironic, sometimes droll, and he makes us aware of it. Few paragraphs pass without drawing a smile to our faces. “There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bar tender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”
Marlow is single and attracted to beautiful women. Today his thoughts and comments sound misogynistic, but he is typical of male characters from the 30’s and 40’s. That mindset that women exist primarily to tempt men leads him to underestimate some female characters and to miss some clues, which he acknowledges. “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”
Chandler assumes readers are sophisticated, so he might not explain every point. This can bring pleasure to a reader who can infer the causes for plot twists.
Marlow’s imperfect; he doesn’t always capture the murderer. He eventually figures out the culprit, but sometimes he allows a justice outside of the law to triumph. This kind of not-so-neat ending–a murky morality–gives readers something to think about long after the reading is done—and a reason to reread.
Chandler instills a sense of place in the Philip Marlow novels. Marlow knows LA as well as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw knows New York. LA with its environs almost serves as a character. “I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At LaBrea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino.” Chandler’s attention to detail leads us to trust him about other things.
Chandler also instills a sense of time. Marlow’s sexist thoughts, his chain smoking, his suits and ties, the kind of car he drives—all of these portray the 30s and 40’s.
Marlow is honorable, returning money if he hasn’t earned it and walking away from drunk women. “If you’re not tough it’s hard to survive in this world; and if you’re not kind then you don’t deserve to survive.”
Treat yourself to a master writer sometime and read Raymond Chandler. Read for the pleasure of a great novel, and then go back and see how he does it.