He had me at “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”
A perfect sentence.
The first sentence of Raymond Chandler’s first novel.
Clean, precise, not too much and not too little, it sets the reader down firmly and immediately in place and time and atmosphere. The voice, with a hint of the hard-boiled quality that would become its trademark, is there. So is the problem, the one that crime or mystery novel experts say should appear in the first paragraph. Again it’s just a hint, a darkness that emanates in the play of language, the strategic words, ‘not’ and ‘hard’.
Next comes, “I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” Setting up the wry sense of humour, the self-assured mocking tone of Chandler’s mythical hero, Philip Marlowe. And another great sentence.
The remarkable Hollywood writer and director Billy Wilder (he and Chandler collaborated in writing the screen play of Double Indemnity which was nominated for an Academy Award) put it this way. “He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence. ‘There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool.’ That is a great line, a great one.”*
The sentence is the basis of the novel. To put it another way, a novel is, after all, a series of sentences put together in some order. Subject, predicate, object, that’s it. Sounds simple. But within that structure is voice and voice is everything. The hard-boiled detective genre is particularly dependent on voice.
Chandler was happy with the choice of Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Bogart had “a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt.”**
Find your voice, they say, those instructors of writing courses and workshops. But Chandler didn’t find his voice, he invented it. Although born in Chicago, he was raised in the traditional British public school system and didn’t return to the States until he was 24 years old. Eventually, he ended up in California. After a decade in the oil business there, he found himself without a job and needing to make a living. As he describes it, in 1931 he and his wife used to take short motor ramblings up and down the Pacific Coast and at night, to have something to read, he would pick up a pulp magazine from a news stand. In reading those stories, he got the idea that he could learn to write one and it might be a good way to make a bit of money.
“I had to learn American just like a foreign language,”*** he says. Analyze and imitate was his method, which he did painstakingly. He quite admired American English as a language that was fluid and alive. Still, the language he learned is not the language of his novels. He took things a step further and came up with the American hard-boiled detective voice and in so doing created a new version of American English, one which became the language of a whole genre of literature as well as that of the film noir movie form.
Because Chandler invented his language, his fictional voice and tone, it was his. He understood it completely. He could do anything with it, say anything in it, which is why no one can write Raymond Chandler like Raymond Chandler. Plenty have tried but none have been successful.
Chandler wrote, “There are no “classics” of crime and detection. Not one.”**** His definition of a classic is a work which exhausts the possibilities of its form and within that particular form cannot be surpassed. His own work refutes the quote.
A Chandler novel is a work of art. It stands alone. It doesn’t ask anything of anybody. It doesn’t refer to the writer. It transcends the personal. The writer is not present in the material. Rather, he stands outside his creation. He does not draw attention to himself. Rather, he is wondering how in hell he did it, or if he did it.
* Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder. Knopf. 1999. p. 69
** Barry Day Ed. The World of Raymond Chandler. Knopf. 2014. p. 153
*** ibid. p. 19
**** Raymond Chandler, Trouble is my Business. Vintage. 1992. intro. x