Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

The wit and wisdom of Raymond Chandler…

I like Raymond Chandler. I like him a lot. I can be obtained to expound on this for $25 a day plus expenses which are mostly whiskey and gasoline.

Chandler was a pulp writer but dear Gods his prose put most of his more “literary” contemporaries in the shade.

Did DH Lawrence ever write a line like this…

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.

Or…

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

No! Lawrence was concerned about fretting about his “John Thomas” – I seriously defy anyone of normal sense to read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and not collapse in histrionics. Not because it’s funny – it isn’t.

More Chandler…

Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.

The minute you try to talk business with him he takes the attitude that he is a gentleman and a scholar, and the moment you try to approach him on the level of his moral integrity he starts to talk business.

Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.

Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.

I do a great deal of research – particularly in the apartments of tall blondes.

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.

I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday.

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

Philip Marlowe is of course a wonderful creation. A profoundly decent man in an indecent world. The kinda bloke you’d like to know but not “blokish” if you see what I mean – he is an ace chess-player, reads poetry and bemoans the vileness of LA. He’s good looking but not in a pretty boy way, hard as nails, ferociously independent and fiercely bright. Oh, and he’ll always stand you a drink. And Hell’s teeth, he got his break with probably the greatest prose stylist in English of the last century. And Chandler’s essay that explains him, “The Simple Art or Murder” is to kill for.

Though don’t do that in California or a guy in a coat and a hat will stick a 1911 semi-auto chambered to .38 super in your ribs.

18 Comments

  1. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    I quite enjoy reading Chandler. I have most of his novels and a bunch of short stories. I like to pick them up every couple of years and re-read them.

    But I do a few problems with his writing:

    1) Vocabulary: he uses a lot of now-obsolete slang, so quite often I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. An on-line glossary of hard-boiled slang comes in handy.

    2) Plot: his serpentine story lines are so incredibly convoluted that I usually give up and just go along for the ride. There’s a story about a Hollywood director who was filming one of books and couldn’t figure out who had actually committed the murder. He rang Chandler up and asked him. Chandler said he had no idea either.

    3) Characters: I find myself thinking, ‘Eh? Who the hell behaves like that? Who would do that?’ quite a lot. Maybe I move in the wrong sort of company.

    So yeah, the language, the plots and the characters can be problematic, but apart from that Chandler is just swell. Well worth reading. :-)

    In the essay that Nick mentioned, The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler pays a lot of respect to the originator of the hard-boiled genre, Dashiell Hammett*. I’ve just finished his The Glass Key. Apart from The Thin Man (which is brilliantly funny, by the way), it’s the only novel of his I’ve read. He has some odd quirks, some of them charming, some of them rather annoying (the use of “mien” on about every other page, for instance, gets really tiresome really quickly), but his stuff is worth getting to know as well.

    *Orson Welles swore that Hammett himself pronounced his forename “Da-SHEEL”.

  2. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Oh, yeah. By the way, Hammett was for thirty years the lover of Lillian Hellman (no relation, as far as I can tell, to the mayonnaise empire), an ardent Communist. And Hammett joined the American Communist Party in 1937.

    But if you can separate the artist from his art*, then his writing is well worth looking out.

    * Not as easy as it sounds, I find.

  3. Sam Duncan says:

    Chandler was schooled at Dulwich College, as was PG Wodehouse. Once you know that, you’ll never look at either in quite the same way again. They never actually met, but their turns of phrase are remarkably similar. Nick’s first quote could easily be Bertie Wooster.

    Having said that, their books couldn’t be more different, nor could their style of working. Wodehouse was fanatical about polishing every page to perfection and – believe it or not of someone whose plots are almost irrelevant to the enjoyment of his work – obsessed with them making sense, while Chandler simply made it up as he went along, resulting in the unfathomability Philip mentioned. For someone who wrote such great sentences, he’s bloody hard to read. Worth it, though.

  4. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Chandler often has Marlowe messing about making coffee. It always involves a “dingus”. That never made sense until I’d googled it for a bit and found this. Then it all made sense.

  5. RAB says:

    I’m a big Chandler fan, and Hammett too come to that, but…

    “I’m a Joker a smoker and a Midnight toker…. so ;-)

  6. Julie near Chicago says:

    PST: That’s why we know it in the vernacular as a doohickey, a thingamajig (or -bob), or a whatchamacallit.

    I don’t care how you diagram it, it’s still a what’s-it. :>))))!!!

    Let’s face it. Britain (I include Scotland, Ireland, etc.) has produced truly great poets. You have also had writers of prose who are fine indeed, but none who can match Mr. [awed, reverent whisper] Wodehouse.

    “I dream of Bertie….”

    PS. The Chandler quotes are great. So’s the discussion. Thanks.

  7. NickM says:

    PG Wodehouse was extraordinarily good. Julie I assume you have the ITV Jeeves and Wooster with Fry and Laurie? Laugh, I almost asphyxiatiated!

  8. Tim Newman says:

    Yup, agreed with all of this and the comments.

    Chandler’s prose reads like poetry, and what PST @1 says about his plots is quite correct. Dashiell Hammett’s plots are far more tightly woven and his main characters more hard-boiled (especially the Continental Op), but Chandler’s prose and metaphors are better. I like the two equally, having read almost all of their works at least twice each. Hammett’s Red Harvest is superb, as is The Big Knockover and Other Stories collection. The body count just keeps rising with every page.

    Incidentally, Red Harvest was the original story whereby an outsider pits two rival gangs against one another, since made into several films – Fistful of Dollars, Yojimbo, Last Man Standing, and Miller’s Crossing. That last one: the Coen Brothers were fans of both Chandler and Hammett. The Big Lebowski is loosely based on The Big Sleep; and continuing the noir theme, The Man Who Wasn’t There is based works by James M. Cain.

    Staying with films for the moment, The Maltese Falcon novel is as brilliant as the film; the latter of which, I recently learned, was a remake (third attempt, actually). So much for the notion that films should not be remade and the originals are always better.

    Onto P.G. Wodehouse. Brilliant, in every way. I’m churning my way through his works now, read most of the Jeeves & Wooster books, some of Blandings, one Psmith, and two of his other short stories. As Sam Duncan says, the plots are very tightly knitted but almost seem beside the point, merely a vehicle to get the words out. What I love is that the plots contain no serious content whatsoever – just a bunch of twits running about getting into trivial difficulties – which allows the reader to just enjoy what’s going on instead of battling to understand it. I did know Wodehouse and Chandler both went to Dulwich College, it’s an extraordinary coincidence. There must have been something in the water there.

    Chandler, Hammett, Wodehouse: I love them all, and can read them again and again and find something new to enjoy each time. The only other author who comes close is Terry Pratchett.

  9. RAB says:

    Blandings is starting on the tellybox this week, starring Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders, let’s see what sort of fist they make of it. Jeeves and Wooster was about as good as it gets. I have the boxed set.

  10. Sam Duncan says:

    Me too, RAB. The same production team did a Blandings pilot a while back with Peter O’Toole. It was bloody awful, and I don’t think it’s ever been repeated. Whatever happens with the Spall/Saunders one, it can’t possibly be that bad. It’s about time someone did a decent Blandings adaptation. (I’ve often thought Hugh Laurie would be a good Galahad in a few years.)

    Anyway, I feel like I’ve hijacked Nick’s Chandler thread with Plum. But the coincidence is remarkable.

  11. NickM says:

    Sam,
    Don’t worry. It’s a valid progression. And I had known the fact but forgot it so thanks for the reminder.

  12. [...] was reminded of two Chandlerisms by someone entirely unrelated to most anything in my life. The minute you try to talk business with him he [...]

  13. Robert Edwards says:

    So, who are the successors? I agree about Chandler and Hammett and, with the odd reservation, Wodehouse.

    I’d nominate George MacDonald Fraser and Gavin Lyall…

  14. Paul Marks says:

    I am trying to think of cities where ordinary people still dress stylishly (as they did in the United States before the 1960s – ordinary people were slim back in the early 20th century also, look at the street scene documentaries, the ordinary people in LA and so on look just wonderful).

    Anyway Rome?

    No – a bit over the top.

    Vienna?

    Perhaps – and there has been a return to more traditional looking clothing in both Austria and Bavaria.

    Of course in Vienna it would be a Glock one stuck in someone’s ribs.

    And Mr Glock has a had life straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel.

  15. Julie near Chicago says:

    NickM: But of course. I only have room for a few DVD’s near my workstation (a.k.a. the kitchen table), and it is occupied by the complete boxed set of said Woosters.

    Personally I think the best casting is hands-down Elizabeth Heery, who plays Madeline Bassett (“every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born”)–she does perkily-otherworldly-dim SO well!

  16. Julie near Chicago says:

    Paul: YESSSS!!!!!

    And the wonderful ladies’ dresses that actually FIT. Very rare to see such nowadays, even in the movies or at the functions of the Beautiful People. A real shame. Might just as well buy off the rack at WalMart or, if feeling REALLY upscale, Goodwill. *Sigh*….

  17. RAB says:

    Well the Italians are certainly stylish alright. Last time I was in Italy I observed all us Brits who had been there before, strolling across the tarmac from the plane, rolling back our shirtcuffs… just so.

    There have been a load of Fred and Ginger movies on the tellybox over xmas, and I was watching Top Hat the other night on iPlayer. Oh god the way they are dressed is imaculate and to die for! Even in black and white you can see the sheer craftsmanship that went into clothes back then. The cut, the line, the way they just hang so right. and the hairstyles too. It’s a depression era movie, but you can bet that even those on the breadline were hankering to copy the look if they possibly could. People, especially working class people, took great pride in the way they looked back then.

    Then there’s the dancing of course… Sheer class! The rhythm of a world class drummer, the timing of a juggler and the art of a conjourer… yep sheer class never equalled.

  18. Julie near Chicago says:

    Oh, my! Strangely enough, I’ve never seen that routine before. I think it might be the best I’ve ever seen Fred do. Bit of “snap” (that word again!), in the solo fast-tap part toward the end. And a great look for the ensemble. Thanks, RAB!

    By the way–did you’all notice in the sidebar, there’s the full movie of “The Public Enemy”?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXa1Kb_xilc

    My gosh, seems as if EVERYONE’s been a hoofer! I knew about James Cagney, but Bob Hope?!! Well, I mean to tell you! Just see the two of them in this routine from “The Seven Little Foys”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOoNOs8Ql28

    Excuse me now, I may as well pop some popcorn, gonna be a long evening. RAB, feel free to bring your plastic peanuts (styrofoam) to munch on if you like. :>))

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: