The Long Shadow of Raymond Chandler…
Raymond Chandler changed my life. I was assigned to read The Long Goodbye for class, and although only five chapters were assigned, I devoured the whole book in one night. As a young writer, I wasn’t sure what sort of stories I wanted to write, but Chandler’s prose, described by Ross Macdonald as “like a slumming angel,” spoke to me. It had the heroic quest of fantasy writing, the gritty realism of literature, and a tough-guy patter that beckoned like a long-lost friend. Since then, hard-boiled mystery has been my primary genre, leading to the publication of my critically lauded debut, The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016). And the title isn’t the only Chandler homage.
On the 129th anniversary of Chandler’s birth, seven writers have gathered to declare how Chandler influenced their own work and continues to shape the landscape of modern crime fiction.
KRISTI BELCAMINO (City of Angels): I am embarrassed to say I came to discover Chandler a bit late in the game but immediately devoured everything he’d ever written. My favorite Chandler book is The Big Sleep. I think he is a master at first pages. This is one of my favorite paragraphs from the first page of The Big Sleep: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars….” How could you not read on?
CHARLES ARDAI (Founder, Hard Case Crime): I read The Big Sleep in the back of a car on a family trip to Pennsylvania. I must have been 13 at the time? 14? I don’t remember exactly. But I remember how my heart raced each time I hit a sentence that floored me. It was like watching a master juggler do something thrilling and risky and graceful and delightful with ordinary objects. I wanted to say: words can do that? Those same words you find so blandly distributed throughout the dictionary or marching in uninspired ranks across other authors’ pages? And when I closed the book, I was astonished to find myself weeping. A 13-year-old boy, weeping! It was an epiphany. That a book could make you feel such elation, such despair, such sympathy. And a detective novel, no less. I’ve never forgotten those tears, that feeling. It’s why I write: I want to make someone cry that way.
REED COLEMAN (What You Break): Chandler’s influence on modern crime writing is less obvious and less pervasive than it once was. As I said recently to a writer friend, the biggest tree in the crime fiction orchard used to be the PI subgenre. These days, the PI subgenre is just one tree in an increasingly crowded orchard. That said, those of us who carry on the tradition of the hard-boiled PI cannot help but be influenced by the master. Although the original works still exist and are there for future writers to read and reference, Chandler’s influence will likely be filtered to the next generation of writers through the works of current practitioners of the art as it was filtered to me through the likes of Lawrence Block and Robert B. Parker. However his influence is passed along, it will remain as fundamental to the craft.
DAN MALMON (Crimespree Magazine): When people ask me what the first mystery novel I ever read was, I answer with The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart by Lawrence Block. Young and impressionable, I was walking through my local Barnes and Noble in 1995; I didn’t know much about mysteries, but I was familiar with archetypes. Thank you, movies, TV, and comic books. I spotted it on an end cap, bought it, took it home, and devoured it. After I read Bogart, I knew I was ready for the real deal, so I went back to that same Barnes and Noble and found the display of Black Lizard Press editions of the Raymond Chandler novels. I started at the beginning with The Big Sleep and just kept going from there. The plot was a bit hard to follow, sure. Even in my twenties, I ate up the language of the book. I still go back to that same beat-up paperback and reread passages. In fact, in our house we dog-ear the pages of books (I know, I know) that have exceptional dialogue so that my wife and I can read it out loud to each other. We’re weird like that.
So much of The Big Sleep is dog-eared, it looks like I just went and chopped off an entire corner of the book. While most folks start at the beginning, I actually started with the homage by Block, then turned around and did my deep dive into Chandler. Does this make me a Chandler hipster? Hell, no. It’s not like I was reading Chandler shorts in pulp mags or anything. It just means that one of my literary heroes tipped his cap to one of his literary heroes. I was lucky enough to catch the nod, and then BAM! I was hooked. So, thank you, Lawrence Block, for introducing me to Raymond Chandler. Needless to say, the three of us have been fast (bookshelf) friends ever since.
JAY STRINGER (How To Kill Friends and Implicate People): Writers often copy all the wrong aspects of Chandler. The famous quote, “When in doubt, have a man walk through the door with a gun,” is as misleading as Oscar Wilde’s opinion on sarcasm. It’s an understandable mistake to make. Chandler was one of the great stylists of crime fiction. His hero floated above the world without ever being affected by it. The man with the gun was a distraction. To really get to the heart of his writing, we need to look past the style and the turns of phrase and focus on the message. Chandler’s two greatest achievements were embracing subtext and pointing out how great Hammett was.
DAVID MORRELL (Murder As Fine Art): To the action and cynicism of Black Mask magazine and Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler added atmosphere and humor, not to mention an often lyrical description of Los Angeles. Those L.A. descriptions gained strength as the years passed because they morphed from being local color and now provide documentary, historical details of a long-ago Los Angeles that would be hard to imagine without Chandler’s evocation of it.
CHANTELLE AIMEE OSMAN (Sirens of Suspense blog): Whether you sneer at him as a modern primitive or revere him as a forefather, Chandler was Colossus, straddling the Rhodesian harbor of crime fiction. By timing or talent, he combined the best of literary and escapist fiction, adding a level of reality that had been long lost to both. He changed the genre forever. What was often considered sensationalism is a misinterpretation of his compulsion to be nothing less than honest on the page—whether in a graphic (for the time) description of a corpse (he saw many during the war), brutal portrayal of police corruption (citizens of Los Angeles were crying out for investigation), or even alcoholism (his own). Despite this cynicism and the powerful, straightforward nature of his writing, Chandler’s private eye was justice, the new white-hatted postwar cowboy. The lone man who rides into town, lassoes the corrupt sheriff, and refuses to take a reward. We see Marlowe’s knight-errant successors on the shelves today with names like Jack Reacher. And we can always use a few more— as Chandler said, “If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”
Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016), which received a starred review from Kirkus as well as praise from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and USA Today. Her short fiction has been published in Beat To a Pulp, The Big Click, The Stoneslide Corrective, and the anthologies Mixed Up, Welcome Home, and the Locus-nominated Hanzai Japan, where her story “Rough Night In Little Toke” was praised as a “polished gem” by the Japan Times. She has read The Long Goodbye approximately twenty times.