Thursday, July 4, 2013

Down these mean streets.. Raymond Chandler "wrote like a slumming angel." (REVISED)

Summer in Ohio. Warm. Muggy. Overcast. The air was humid and thick as a politician's skin. Oppressive as my past

Sorry. I've been reading Chandler and seem to have gone full Noir.

Why am I reading a crime novelist who died over a half century ago? One whose last major work dates from the early Fifties? Well, because I love how the English language works in the hands of a master. Raymond Chandler was a master if nothing else.

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler took the crime novel out of Christie's English Country Estates where the corpse was served up with tea and crumpets and put it back in the gritty, dark corrupt urban environs where it belonged. No gimmick like a detective who works from bed or never leaves the house. Spade and Marlowe were men. Human. Damaged guys with a sense that law and justice were at times not even nodding acquaintances. Men with situational ethics long before the phrase.

Chandler is a long standing favorite of mine. An early influence. Hell I read "The Little Sister" when I was eleven or twelve, poolside during rest periods. There was something there that engaged my developing love of a well written novel. The use of language the way an artist wields a brush. Literary landscapes. Prose portraits .A world as far removed from Sixties Columbus as modern Britain is from The Shire unfolded in my imagination.

Chandler, more than anyone, perfected a uniquely American genre. The hard boiled Private Eye with the tough exterior and thoughtful, compassionate center. A man alone but undaunted. A man that walks in the shadows and still sees the stars.

Chandler's Mother, after her divorce, took Raymond home to Ireland where they lived with her Mother.Chandler's Father had married "Lace Curtain Irish".After the family relocated to England, He attended upscale British public schools.There he excelled in the classics and learned a code of honor he never lost. After graduation he wrote essay's, poetry and critiques.

Wanting to write, Chandler took a job in the civil service thinking it would provide stability and time.. Unable to deal with the rigid environment he went back to the States.

Ray settled in L.A. He was an educated man for the time and held various white collar jobs. When WW1 started he Joined The Canadian Expeditionary Force. Serving with distinction in fierce engagements he was wounded and was the sole survivor of his unit. He was decorated and discharged.

Raymond returned to Los Angeles. Prior to the war he had fallen in love with a woman eighteen years his senior. Following the war she divorced. Chandler put her up in an apartment in Hermosa Beach near where he lived. His mother was living with him at the time. Following her death he married the love of his life, Cissy Pascal.

He took a position with an Oil Syndicate in L.A. The oil business there was rather wild west. Chandler met all sort of characters. The rich and obscenely rich. Pickpockets, crooked politicians, corrupt cops and others that would surface later in his work.

Chandler was drinking heavily as he would off and on for the rest of hos life. He was fired. He wandered up and down the Pacific coast. As he did so he started reading pulps. This was the peak of the pulp industry. Reading "Black mask" he decided he could do the crime genre, learn to really write as he did it and make a little money while he was at it.With his Classical education Chandler thought he could bring something new and unique to these stories.

He set his fiction in Los Angeles. The City Of Angels had exploded in population with the rise of the Film industry. With the explosive growth came money, power, vices of every description, crime and corruption. A perfect back drop straight out of a studio lot.

He sold his first story to "Black Mask". At one cent a word. He soon got a raise to a nickle a word. He wrote slowly and meticulously crafting these tales of L.A.'s seamy underside. Thus his output was never high.  Especially when compared to prolific writers like Cain, MacDonald and Stout. Chandler was correct though. He was learning to really write.

Chandler had developed an uniquely Southern Californian voice. The hot dry Santa Ana winds drove the narrative at times. That wind pushed the characters over their moral boundaries. The unthinkable became logical. Desirable. Needed, His characters wandered up and down the coast. Venice Beach. Santa Monica. Into the desert. The harsh unrelenting sunshine exposed things best left in shadow. Los Angeles was the major recurring character in his work. The Dame. The Seductress. The nemesis pulling all the strings.

Knowing if he were to make any money he needed to write a novel he cannibalized and reworked three short stories into "The Big Sleep". Here we meet Phillip Marlowe and the mature writer Raymond Chandler.

Chandler had perfected his use of dialogue to drive the narrative,  Subtle wordplay. Wry humor. Smartass interactions. This was layered over a cynicism that veiled a hopeful Marlowe. One who had seen the worst of humanity and did not despair. He still believed. In justice and people. He was a knight errant saving the village from the dragon and losing innocence along the way. The heroic sacrifice.

Chandler's and Marlowe's vision of right and wrong wasn't weighted by black and white. He embraced shades of grey as Marlowe embraced a femme fatale. Ray's use description created the Noir world of the Los Angeles not promoted by Studio flacks.

Chandler's use of devices like simile and metaphor was poetry in prose form. You feel the dry hot air moving through the Los Angeles basin. You recognize the venality of the wealthy. Unlike film and novels of the time Chandler didn't aggrandize the rich. He showed them as they are. Powerful, entitled, spoiled and demanding feudal Lords. He showed us the rich are different. He did it with a word, A well turned scathing phrase and an egalitarian point of view.

Chandler showed the corruption of our ideals. The American Dream as nightmare.

Raymond Chandler wrote more novels and had a love hate relationship with the Hollywood Studios. They adapted his novels to varying degrees of success. He received two Oscar nominations for screenplays. Billy Wilder allowed him to write drunk.He realized a loaded Chandler wrote better than most sober screenwriters.

In 1953 "The Long Goodbye" was published. Chandler put everything he had learned as a writer into that novel. As a result he changed the genre once again. He gave us the socially conscious Private Investigator.

The book was a quintessential American novel that happened to have a crime in it.He delved into social, racial,political, sexual and environmental issues as he weaved a spellbinding narrative. His use of language was subtly superb and breathtaking. Los Angeles was a living, breathing, oasis of decadence and desperate corruption. It may be his best work. It is an enduring snapshot of L.A.

After the death of his wife his work was sporadic and of uneven quality. He was drinking heavily. A full blown alcoholic. And still in that later work was flashes of genius. The man who shaped SoCal for the rest of us even today.

All PI's are the children of Marlowe. Rockford. Spenser. Any good person that will walk mean streets to put themselves in harm's way for a cause. A reason.

A brilliant, flawed man gave us an endearingly flawed character. One who endures the life he has to help others keep theirs. His voice was uniquely American.  Uniquely precise.  A Doctoral course on the power and beauty of the written word..

Less than twenty attended his funeral. Any of us that fancy ourselves a writer owe him a tremendous debt.

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