Books: The Country Behind the Hill: Raymond Chandler |
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The Country Behind the Hill : Raymond Chandler

‘In the long run’, Raymond Chandler writes in Raymond Chandler Speaking, ‘however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.’ At a time when literary values inflate and dissipate almost as fast as the currency, it still looks as if Chandler invested wisely. His style has lasted. A case could be made for saying that nothing else about his books has, but even the most irascible critic or disillusioned fan (they are often the same person) would have to admit that Chandler at his most characteristic is just that — characteristic and not just quirky. Auden was right in wanting him to be regarded as an artist. In fact Auden’s tribute might well have been that of one poet to another. If style is the only thing about Chandler’s novels that can’t be forgotten, it could be because his style was poetic, rather than prosaic. Even at its most explicit, what he wrote was full of implication. He used to say that he wanted to give a feeling of the country behind the hill.

Since Chandler was already well into middle-age when he began publishing, it isn’t surprising that he found his style quickly. Most of the effects that were to mark The Big Sleep in 1939 were already present, if only fleetingly, in an early story like ‘Killer in the Rain’, published in Black Mask magazine in 1935. In fact some of the very same sentences are already there. This from ‘Killer in the Rain’:

The rain splashed knee-high off the sidewalks, filled the gutters, and big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying little girls in silk stockings and cute little rubber boots across the bad places, with a lot of squeezing.

Compare this from The Big Sleep:

Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the pavement. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places. The rain drummed hard on the roof of the car and the burbank top began to leak. A pool of water formed on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in.

So there is not much point in talking about how Chandler’s style developed. As soon as he was free of the short-paragraph restrictions imposed by the cheaper pulps, his way of writing quickly found its outer limits: all he needed to do was refine it. The main refining instrument was Marlowe’s personality. The difference between the two cited passages is really the difference between John Dalmas and Philip Marlowe. Marlowe’s name was not all that more convincing than Dalmas’s, but he was a more probable, or at any rate less improbable, visionary. In The Big Sleep and all the novels that followed, the secret of plausibility lies in the style, and the secret of the style lies in Marlowe’s personality. Chandler once said that he thought of Marlowe as the American mind. As revealed in Chandler’s Notebooks (edited by Frank McShane and published by the Ecco Press, New York), one of Chandler’s many projected titles was The Man Who Loved the Rain. Marlowe loved the rain.

Flaubert liked tinsel better than silver because tinsel possessed all silver’s attributes plus one in addition — pathos. For whatever reason, Chandler was fascinated by the cheapness of L. A. When he said that it had as much personality as a paper cup, he was saying what he liked about it. When he said that he could leave it without a pang, he was saying why he felt at home there. In a city where the rich were as vulgar as the poor, all the streets were mean. In a democracy of trash, Marlowe was the only aristocrat. Working for 25 dollars a day plus expenses (Jim Rockford in the T.V. series The Rockford Files now works for ten times that and has to live in a trailer), Marlowe was as free from materialistic constraint as any hermit. He saw essences. Chandler’s particular triumph was to find a style for matching Marlowe to the world. Vivid language was the decisive element, which meant that how not to make Marlowe sound like too good a writer was the continuing problem. The solution was a kind of undercutting wit, a style in which Marlowe mocked his own fine phrases. A comic style, always on the edge of self-parody — and, of course, sometimes over the edge — but at its best combining the exultant and the sad in an inseparable mixture.

For a writer who is not trying all that hard to be funny, it is remarkable how often Chandler can make you smile. His conciseness can strike you as a kind of wit in itself. The scene with General Sternwood in the hot-house, the set piece forming Chapter Two of The Big Sleep, is done with more economy than you can remember: there are remarkably few words on the page to generate such a lasting impression of warm fog in the reader’s brain. ‘The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom.’ It’s the rogue verb ‘larded’ which transmits most of the force. Elsewhere, a single simile gives you the idea of General Sternwood’s aridity. ‘A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.’ The fact that he stays dry in the wet air is the measure of General Sternwood’s nearness to death. The bare rock is the measure of his dryness. At their best, Chandler’s similes click into place with this perfect appositeness. He can make you laugh, he gets it so right — which perhaps means that he gets it too right. What we recognize as wit is always a self-conscious performance.

But since wit that works at all is rare enough, Chandler should be respected for it. And anyway, he didn't always fall into the trap of making his characters too eloquent. Most of Marlowe's best one-liners are internal. In the film of The Big Sleep, when Marlowe tells General Sternwood that he has already met Carmen in the hall, he says: 'She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.' Bogart gets a big laugh with that line, but only half of the line is Chandler's. All that Chandler's Marlowe says is: 'Then she tried to sit in my lap.' The film version of Marlowe got the rest of the gag from somewhere else — either from William Faulkner, who wrote the movie, or from Howard Hawks, who directed it, or perhaps from both. On the page, Marlowe's gags are private and subdued. About Carmen, he concludes that 'thinking was always going to be a bother to her.' He notices — as no camera could notice, unless the casting director flung his net very wide — that her thumb is like a finger, with no curve in its first joint. He compares the shocking whiteness of her teeth to fresh orange pith. He gets you scared stiff of her in a few sentences.

Carmen is the first in a long line of little witches that runs right through the novels, just as her big sister, Vivian, is the first in a long line of rich bitches who find that Marlowe is the only thing money can't buy. The little witches are among the most haunting of Chandler's obsessions and the rich bitches are among the least. Whether little witch or rich bitch, both kinds of woman signal their availability to Marlowe by crossing their legs shortly after sitting down and regaling him with tongue-in-the-lung French kisses a few seconds after making physical contact. 

All the standard Chandler character ingredients were there in the first novel, locked in a pattern of action so complicated that not even the author was subsequently able to puzzle it out. The Big Sleep was merely the first serving of the mixture as before. But the language was fresh and remains so. When Chandler wrote casually of 'a service station glaring with wasted light' he was striking a note that Dashiell Hammett had never dreamed of. Even the book's title rang a bell. Chandler thought that there were only two types of slang which were any good: slang that had established itself in the language, and slang that you made up yourself. As a term for death, 'the big sleep' was such a successful creation that Eugene O'Neill must have thought it had been around for years, since he used it in The Iceman Cometh (1946) as an established piece of low-life tough talk. But there is no reason for disbelieving Chandler's claim to have invented it. 

Chandler's knack for slang would have been just as commendable even if he had never thought of a thing. As the Notebooks reveal, he made lists of slang terms that he had read or heard. The few he kept and used were distinguished from the many he threw away by their metaphorical exactness. He had an ear for depth — he could detect incipient permanence in what sounded superficially like ephemera. A term like 'under glass', meaning to be in prison, attracted him by its semantic compression. In a letter collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking, he regards it as self-evident that an American term like 'milk run' is superior to the equivalent British term 'piece of cake'. The superiority being in the range of evocation. As it happened, Chandler was inventive, not only in slang but in more ambitiously suggestive figures of speech. He was spontaneous as well as accurate. His second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940) — which he was always to regard as his finest — teems with show-stopping metaphors, many of them dedicated to conjuring up the gargantuan figure of Moose Malloy. 

In fact some of them stop the show too thoroughly. When Chandler describes Malloy as standing out from his surroundings like 'a tarantula on a slice of angel food' he is getting things backwards, since the surroundings have already been established as very sordid indeed. Malloy ought to be standing out from them like a slice of angel food on a tarantula. Chandler at one time confessed to Alfred A. Knopf that in The Big Sleep he had run his metaphors into the ground, the implication being that he cured himself of the habit later on. But the truth is that he was always prone to overcooking a simile. As Perelman demonstrated in Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer (a spoof which Chandler admired), this is one of the areas in which Chandler is most easily parodied, although it should be remembered that it takes a Perelman to do the parodying. 

'It was a blonde', says Marlowe, looking at Helen Grayle's photograph, 'A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.' I still laugh when I read that, but you can imagine Chandler jotting down such brain-waves à propos of nothing and storing them up against a rainy day. They leap off the page so high that they never again settle back into place, thereby adding to the permanent difficulty of remembering what happens to whom where in which novel. The true wit, in Farewell, My Lovely as in all the other books, lies in effects which marry themselves less obtrusively to character, action and setting. Jessie Florian's bathrobe, for example. 'It was just something around her body.' A sentence like that seems hardly to be trying, but it tells you all you need to know. Marlowe's realization that Jessie has been killed — 'The corner post of the bed was smeared darkly with something the flies liked' — is trying harder for understatement, but in those circumstances Marlowe would understate the case, so the sentence fits. Poor Jessie Florian. 'She was as cute as a washtub.'

And some of the lines simply have the humour of information conveyed at a blow, like the one about the butler at the Grayle house. As always when Chandler is dealing with Millionaires’ Row, the place is described with a catalogue eye for ritzy detail, as if F. Scott Fitzgerald had written a contribution to Architectural Digest. (The Murdock house in The High Window bears a particularly close resemblance to Gatsby’s mansion: vide the lawn flowing ‘like a cool green tide around a rock.’) Chandler enjoyed conjuring up the grand houses into which Marlowe came as an interloper and out of which he always went with a sigh of relief, having hauled the family skeletons out of the walk-in cupboards and left the beautiful, wild elder daughter sick with longing for his uncorruptible countenance. But in several telling pages about the Grayle residence, the sentence that really counts is the one about the butler. ‘A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day.’

In the early books and novels, before he moved to Laurel Canyon, when he still lived at 615 Cahuenga Building on Hollywood Boulevard, near Ivar, telephone Glenview 7537, Marlowe was fond of Los Angeles. All the bad things happened in Bay City. In Bay City there were crooked cops, prostitution, drugs, but after you came to (Marlowe was always coming to in Bay City, usually a long time after he had been sapped, because in Bay City they always hit him very hard) you could drive home. Later on the evil had spread everywhere and Marlowe learned to hate what L.A. had become. The set-piece descriptions of his stamping-ground got more and more sour. But the descriptions were always there — one of the strongest threads running through the novels from first to last. And even at their most acridly poisonous they still kept something of the wide-eyed lyricism of that beautiful line in Farewell, My Lovely about a dark night in the canyons — the night Marlowe drove Lindsay Mariott to meet his death. ‘A yellow window hung here and there by itself, like the last orange.’

There is the usual ration of overcooked metaphors in The High Window (1942). Lois Morny gives forth with ‘a silvery ripple of laughter that held the unspoiled naturalness of a bubble dance.’ (By the time you have worked out that this means her silvery ripple of laughter held no unspoiled naturalness, the notion has gone dead.) We learn that Morny’s club in Idle Valley looks like a high-budget musical. ‘A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality and drive of a split fingernail.’ Tracing the club through the musical down to the fingernail, your attention loses focus. It’s a better sentence than any of Chandler’s imitators ever managed, but it was the kind of sentence they felt able to imitate — lying loose and begging to be picked up.

As always, the quiet effects worked better. The back yard of the Morny house is an instant Hockney. ‘Beyond was a walled-in garden containing flower-beds crammed with showy annuals, a badminton court, a nice stretch of greensward, and a small tiled pool glittering angrily in the sun.’ The rogue adverb ‘angrily’ is the word that registers the sun’s brightness. It’s a long step, taken in a few words, to night-time in Idle Valley. ‘The wind was quiet out here and the valley moonlight was so sharp that the black shadows looked as if they had been cut with an engraving tool.’ Saying how unreal the real looks makes it realer.

‘Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town.’ The High Window has many such examples of Chandler widening his rhythmic scope. Yet the best and the worst sentences are unusually far apart. On several occasions Chandler is extraordinarily clumsy. ‘He was a tall man with glasses and a high-domed bald head that made his ears look as if they had slipped down his head.’ This sentence is literally effortless: the clumsy repetition of ‘head’ is made possible only because he isn’t trying. Here is a useful reminder of the kind of concentration required to achieve a seeming ease. And here is another: ‘From the lay of the land a light in the living room... ‘ Even a writer who doesn’t, as Chandler usually did, clean as he goes, would normally liquidate so languorous an alliterative lullaby long before the final draft.

But in between the high points and the low, the general tone of The High Window had an assured touch. The narrator’s interior monologue is full of the sort of poetry Laforge liked — comme ils sont beaux, les trains manqués. Marlowe’s office hasn’t changed, nor will it ever. ‘The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.’ Marlowe accuses the two cops, Breeze and Spangler, of talking dialogue in which every line is a punch-line. Criticism is not disarmed: in Chandler, everybody talks that kind of dialogue most of the time. But the talk that matters most is the talk going on inside Marlowe’s head, and Marlowe was making it more subtle with each book.

Chandler’s descriptive powers are at their highest in The Lady In The Lake (1943). It takes Marlowe a page and a half of thoroughly catalogued natural detail to drive from San Bernardino to Little Fawn Lake, but when he gets there he sees the whole thing in a sentence. ‘Beyond the gate the road wound for a couple of hundred yards through trees and then suddenly below me was a small oval lake deep in trees and rocks and wild grass, like a drop of dew caught in a curled leaf.’ Hemingway could do bigger things, but small moments like those were Chandler’s own. (Nevertheless Hemingway got on Chandler’s nerves: Dolores Gonzales in The Little Sister is to be heard saying ‘I was pretty good in there, no?’ and the nameless girl who vamps Marlowe at Roger Wade’s party in The Long Goodbye spoofs the same line. It should be remembered, however, that Chandler admired Hemingway to the end, forbearing to pour scorn even on Across the River and Into the Trees. The digs at Papa in Chandler’s novels can mainly be put down to self-defence.)

The Little Sister (1949), Chandler’s first post-war novel, opens with Marlowe stalking a bluebottle fly around his office. ‘He didn’t want to sit down. He just wanted to do wing-overs and sing the prologue to Pagliacci.’ Ten years before, in Trouble Is My Business, John Dalmas felt like singing the same thing after being sapped in Harriet Huntress’s apartment. Chandler was always ready to bring an idea back for a second airing. A Ph.D thesis could be written about the interest John Dalmas and Philip Marlowe take in bugs and flies. There is another thesis in the tendency of Chandler’s classier dames to show a startling line of white scalp in the parting of their hair: Dolores Gonzales, who throughout The Little Sister propels herself at Marlowe like Lupe Velez seducing Errol Flynn, is only one of the several high-toned vamps possessing this tonsorial feature. ‘She made a couple of drinks in a couple of glasses you could almost have stood umbrellas in.’ A pity about that ‘almost’ — it ruins a good hyperbole. Moss Spink’s extravagance is better conveyed: ‘He waved a generous hand on which a canary-yellow diamond looked like an amber traffic light.’

But as usual the would-be startling images are more often unsuccessful than successful. The better work is done lower down the scale of excitability. Joseph P. Toad, for example. ‘The neck of his canary-yellow shirt was open wide, which it had to be if his neck was going to get out.’ Wit like that lasts longer than hyped-up similes. And some of the dialogue, though as stylized as ever, would be a gift to actors: less supercharged than usual, it shows some of the natural balance which marked the lines Chandler has been writing for the movies. Here is Marlowe sparring with Sheridan Ballou.

‘Did she suggest how to go about shutting my mouth?’
‘I got the impression she was in favour of doing it with some kind of heavy blunt instrument.’

Such an exchange is as playable as anything in Double Indemnity or The Blue Dahlia. And imagine what Laird Cregar would have done with Toad’s line ‘You could call me a guy what wants to help out a guy that don’t want to make trouble for a guy.’ Much as he would have hated the imputation, Chandler’s toil in the salt-mines under the Paramount mountain had done things for him. On the other hand, the best material in The Little Sister is inextricably bound up with the style of Marlowe’s perception, which in turn depends on Chandler’s conception of himself. There could be no complete screen rendition of the scene with Jules Oppenheimer in the studio patio. With peeing dogs instead of the hot-house steam, it’s exactly the same lay-out as Marlowe’s encounter with General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, but then there was no filming that either. The mood of neurotic intensity — Marlowe as the soldier-son, Sternwood/Oppenheimer as the father-figure at death’s door — would be otiose in a film script, which requires that all action be relevant. In the novels, such passages are less about Marlowe than about Chandler working out his obsessions through Malowe, and nobody ever wanted to make a film about Chandler.

In The Long Goodbye (1953) Marlowe moves to a house on Yucca Avenue in Laurel Canyon and witnesses the disintegration of Terry Lennox. Lennox can’t control his drinking. Marlowe, master of his own thirst, looks sadly on. As we now know, Chandler in real life was more Lennox than Marlowe. In the long dialogues between these two characters he is really talking to himself. There is no need to be afraid of the biographical fallacy: even if we knew nothing about Chandler’s life, it would still be evident that a fantasy is being worked out. Worked out but not admitted — as so often happens in good-bad books, the author’s obsessions are being catered to, not examined. Chandler, who at least worked for a living, had reason for thinking himself more like Marlowe than like Lennox. (Roger Wade, the other of the book’s big drinkers, is, being a writer, a bit closer to home.) Nevertheless Marlowe is a day-dream — more and more of a day-dream as Chandler gets better and better at making him believable. By this time it’s Marlowe v. the Rest of the World. Of all Chandler’s nasty cops, Captain Gregorius is the nastiest. ‘His big nose was a network of burst capillaries.’ But even in the face of the ultimate nightmare Marlowe keeps his nerve. Nor is he taken in by Eileen Wade, superficially the dreamiest of all Chandler’s dream girls.

It was a near-run thing, however, Chandler mocked romantic writers who always used three adjectives but Marlowe fell into the same habit when contemplating Eileen Wade. ‘She looked exhausted now, and frail, and very beautiful.’ Perhaps he was tipped off when Eileen suddenly caught the same disease and started referring to ‘the wild, mysterious, improbable kind of love that never comes but once’. In the end she turns out to be a killer, a dream-girl gone sour like Helen Grayle in Farewell, My Lovely, whose motherly clutch (‘smooth and soft and warm and comforting’) was that of a strangler. The Long Goodbye is the book of Marlowe’s irretrievable disillusion.

I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars. When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living-room and sipped it and listened to the ground swell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big, angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him.

Even Marlowe got caught. Linda Loring nailed him. ‘The tip of her tongue touched mine.’ His vestal virginity was at long last ravished away. But naturally there was no Love, at least not yet.

Having broken the ice, Marlowe was to be laid again, most notably by the chic, leg-crossing Miss Vermilyea in Chandler’s next novel, Playback (1958). It is only towards the end of that novel that we realize how thoroughly Marlowe is being haunted by Linda Loring’s memory. Presumably this is the reason why Marlowe’s affair with Miss Vermilyea is allowed to last only one night. (‘ “I hate you,” she said with her mouth against mine. “Not for this, but because perfection never comes twice and with us it came too soon. And I’ll never see you again and I don’t want to. It would have to be for ever or not at all.” ‘) We presume that Miss Vermilyea wasn’t just being tactful.

Anyway, Linda Loring takes the prize, but not before Marlowe has raced through all his usual situations, albeit in compressed form. Once again, for example, he gets hit on the head. ‘I went zooming out over a dark sea and exploded in a sheet of flame.’ For terseness this compares favourably with an equivalent moment in Bay City Blues, written twenty years before.

Then a naval gun went off in my ear and my head was a large pink firework exploding into the vault of the sky and scattering and falling slow and pale, and then dark, into the waves. Blackness ate me up.

Chandler’s prose had attained respectability, but by now he had less to say with it — perhaps because time had exposed his day-dreams to the extent that even he could see them for what they were. The belief was gone. In The Poodle Springs Story, his last, unfinished novel, Marlowe has only one fight left to fight, the war against the rich. Married now to Linda, he slugs it out with her toe to toe. It is hard to see why he bothers to keep up the struggle. Even heroes get tired and not even the immortal stay young forever. Defeat was bound to come some time and although it is undoubtedly true that the rich are corrupt at least Linda knows how corruption ought to be done: the classiest of all Chandler’s classy dames, the richest bitch of all, she will bring Marlowe to a noble downfall. There is nothing vulgar about Linda. (If that Hammond organ-cum-cocktail bar in their honeymoon house disturbs you, don’t forget that the place is only rented.)

So Marlowe comes to an absurd end, and indeed it could be said that he was always absurd. Chandler was always dreaming. He dreamed of being more attractive than he was, taller than he was, less trammelled than he was, braver than he was. But so do most men. We dream about our ideal selves, and it is at least arguable that we would be even less ideal if we didn’t. Marlowe’s standards of conduct would be our standards if we had his courage. We can rationalize the discrepancy by convincing ourselves that if we haven’t got his courage he hasn’t got our mortgage, but the fact remains that his principles are real.

Marlowe can be hired, but he can’t be bought. As a consequence, he is alone. Hence his lasting appeal. Not that he is without his repellent aspects. His race prejudice would amount to outright fascism if it were not so evident that he would never be able to bring himself to join a movement. His sexual imagination is deeply suspect and he gets hit on the skull far too often for someone who works largely with his head. His taste in socks is oddly vile for one who quotes so easily from Browning (‘the poet, not the automatic’). But finally you recognize his tone of voice.

It is your own, day-dreaming of being tough, of giving the rich bitch the kiss-off, of saying smart things, of defending the innocent, of being the hero. It is a silly day-dream because anyone who could really do such splendid things would probably not share it, but without it the rest of us would be even more lost than we are. Chandler incarnated this necessary fantasy by finding a style for it. His novels are exactly as good as they should be. In worse books, the heroes are too little like us: in better books, too much.



The most terrible thing that ever happened to Raymond Chandler was not his failed suicide attempt but what was said by one of the cops who were called to the scene. The cop said that Chandler dramatized himself. One is sure he did, although he never admitted it in print. He wanted to appear hard-bitten; the turmoil in his own soul was off limits; and his determination to keep it that way was the chief reason why he remained a writer of genre fiction despite the talent which always promised something else. Whether something else would necessarily have been something better is another question. Examining his own thought processes would have given him more to take in, but by temperament he was not particularly exploratory even when it came to the outside world, a less dangerous place: he was essentially one of those house-bound writers who take their ivory tower with them wherever they go, even into the underworld. A few months on the fringes of the low life gave him the atmospheric details for a whole career, as we can tell by the way they steadily go out of date when we read him through. In Hollywood he barely left the bungalow: he was right in the middle of the richest single subject America could present, but the thought of writing about it either never occurred to him or posed too great a challenge to his protective self-regard. Instead, sadly for both him and us, he wrote for Hollywood, fulfilling the requirements.

He did the same for his genre, except that he over-fulfilled them. The thrill of his books was that they were so much better written than they needed to be. The thrill remains. I still go back to him: not for his stories, which despite their wilful complexity seem thinner all the time, but for the rightness of the metaphor, the balance of the sentence, the drive of the paragraph. If I had not already grown out of genre fiction when I started to read him, he would have helped me to. He was right about style — which is, after all, the only thing we take away from that warehouse of expendable fables we absorbed when we were young. The style was the substance. From all those hundreds of jobbing writers who give us their candy-flavoured fantasies, we synthesize an ideal of resonant narrative, and look for it again in the artists who give us reality. There could be a worse way in. Think what it would be like to be brought up on literature: neat gin through a rubber teat, and rump steak for pabulum.