Four decades after settling down to his big sleep, Raymond Chandler is having a fine year. In the fall, Everyman’s Library will splashily release Collected Stories, a complete edition of the 25 pieces that started appearing in the pulps in 1933. Right now, Vintage is reissuing two story collections and all seven of his novels, snappy new packages for his peculiar eloquence.
In truth, he hasn’t ever gone away. It is no stretch to call him one of the most influential American writers of the last century. His view of Southern California as a perfumed sump hole has nurtured such modern-day, sun-beaten mystery writers as James Ellroy and Walter Mosley. He’s connected to the classics of film noir either directly (as the adapter of Double Indemnity and adaptee of The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet) or incidentally (as an inspiration for everything from Kiss Me Deadly to Blood Simple). He was a godfather to novelists as disparate as Ian Fleming — whose James Bond, in his martinis and his solitude, might as well be the playboy son of Philip Marlowe — and Haruki Murakami, who gives Chandler’s lean diction and disappearing women a surrealistic spin. And beyond all that, he is the inventor of an outlook and an idiom that each pervade our culture.
The outlook is conveyed by Marlowe, a PI with a gun in his shoulder holster and a flask of rye in his pocket. He used to be an investigator in the DA’s office. ”I was fired,” he tells his client in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. ”For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.” Marlowe’s insouciance is never less than sterling, his most seductive quality. Every wisecrack of his whip-smart tongue is a declaration of his free agency. He is a ronin and cowboy, a cynical loner who cuts a romantic figure. His cases tend to involve blackmailed ladies, dissipated gentlemen, missing broads, and omnipresent goons. To appropriate a scene from The Lady in the Lake, he works a beat ”full to overflowing with males in leisure jackets and liquor breaths and females in high-pitched laughs, oxblood fingernails and dirty knuckles.” He gets 25 bucks a day (plus expenses) but is rich in the satisfaction of being incorruptible.
Opening a Chandler novel, we often find Marlowe out on the pavement, preparing to call on a client. Thus, in The Big Sleep: ”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.” The Chandler idiom casts a glow (sometimes street-lamp yellow, sometimes neon purple) on Hemingway’s clean surfaces. It does not waste a comma, and it’s flexible enough to capture the plain and lurid alike while never overworking its tone of heightened tabloid naturalism. In The High Window, Marlowe lays eyes on a showgirl named Lois Magic: ”Her mouth was too wide, her eyes were too blue, her makeup was too vivid, the thin arch of her eyebrows was almost fantastic in its curve and spread, and the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings…. Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby.”