Monday, April 14, 2008

Murderous Prose

Copyright © 2008, Steven E. Houchin

It seems I just can't get enough of author Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). His portrayal of the hard-bitten, working class Private Dick may only be matched by his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, with his starring ace detective Sam Spade.

Chandler is famous for his gritty detective protagonist Philip Marlowe, who prowls the streets and environs of 1930's and 1940's Los Angeles, richly transporting the reader headlong into that era. Two of his most famous Marlowe novels, Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Big Sleep (1939), were also successful movies.

I'm currently reading Chandler's The Simple Art of Murder (Vintage Books, 1988), which begins with an essay - often scathingly critical - on the state of the "detective story", and his disdain for its many practitioners. He says, "The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published." The remainder of the book is a series of - you guessed it - short detective stories.

What amazes me most about Chandler is his stunning descriptive phrases. For example, his story Spanish Blood begins:

"Big John Masters was large, fat and oily. He had sleek blue jowls and very thick fingers on which the knuckles were dimples."

Or, the first paragraph of I'll Be Waiting:

"... Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby ... The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs."


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