I’ve been looking up some of Raymond Chandler’s sayings, both on-line and on my shelves. Yes, of course I know I should be working…but this was much more fun. And how I wish I could write like that!
It’s all the fault of my friend Dolores Gordon-Smith, who blogged recently about pace in mysteries, at http://www.doloresgordon-smith.co.uk/wordpress/?p=452 That reminded me of Chandler’s dictum, “When nothing is happening, send in a man with a gun in his hand.”
Remembering Chandler’s novels, I expect most of us think first of those wonderful one-liners. For instance in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, “Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” Or “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” And how about, from THE BIG SLEEP, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” I could go on all day.
However the best-known of all Chandler’s sayings must be his description of the perfect sleuth: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
(Source: an essay that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1945)
I love this. Even though I wouldn’t presume to compare my own mysteries with Chandler’s, I do agree with him about sleuths (I can’t call my crime-solvers detectives, not in Roman Britain!) My Aurelia Marcella is, on the whole, “neither tarnished nor afraid.” Well of course she’s afraid sometimes, she’d be a fool otherwise, not to mention quite implausible as a character; but she won’t let fear stop her doing something she thinks is right.
She’s also, to change the gender of Chandler’s ideal sleuth, “a complete woman and a common woman and yet an unusual woman….a woman of honor. She talks as the woman of her age talks…” That last bit delights me, because I’m sometimes told off for making Aurelia sound “too modern” in her language. I find this slightly odd, as of course in 100 AD she’d have been speaking Latin or Greek or the Celtic lingo of the native Brits…but she’d have been using the kind of words, including slang, that they did. Thanks, Mr. C!
Chandler’s essay, THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER published in 1950, contains some wonderful insights. I wish I had room to quote extensively from it, but here’s a comment that strikes me as spot-on. “I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.”
Hear hear! Any good piece of fiction can inform, entertain, amuse, stimulate – but that’s not all it does. “Escapist” has come to be used as a put-down for books; but I’m proud if any work of mine helps a reader escape into another world. What’s good enough for Chandler is good enough for me!