July 29, 2012 by Marcus Speh
I spent all day reading Raymond Chandler as a matter of researching a new project (easy to guess: a detective story). In my teens I was a huge fan of the California type mystery novel noir and read everything I could find by Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer, in this order, were for some time best friends. It wasn’t hard to maintain their swagger and shady ambivalence towards life, especially sex, money and fame, because I didn’t have any and neither did they. Or if they did, it was always somehow existentially spoiled—and how acutely did I feel that despoilment, too. Though these were hard-boiled detectives, and I oftentimes still felt like a gooey kid not in control of any of my limbs, we had something in common: we felt suspicious of the world, without being able to give any particular reason. Instead, reality constantly unraveled in every scene and had to be put together again like a senseless sculpture, but without tools, and with hands that were aching with every touch. Nobody captured my sense of forlornness better than Marlowe, who wasn’t just a chess figure in somebody else’s game (though he often enough felt just like that), but a real hero without attitude, a sculptor of scenes, a meaning maker and a natural analyst of his own afflictions:
“I went to bed full of whiskey and frustration and dreamed about a man in a bloody Chinese coat who chased a naked girl with long jade earrings while I ran after them and tried to take a photograph with an empty camera.”
When I meet Marlowe now, it hurts to see how much of that good insecurity I’ve lost since. Fortunately not so much that he won’t talk to me. Alas, we won’t share a smoke, because I’ve given up cigarettes and he’s still at it, wouldn’t be the same without the booze and the fag somehow dangling from his mouth like an overripe thought the staid compliment for one of the many women Marlowe meets and describes, too harshly perhaps in the deeply orange Southern Californian light:
“She was sitting very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect in the pose of an Egyptian goddess, her chin level, her small bright teeth shining between her parted lips. Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn’t have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it.”
But before I get way too lyrical for this time, age and then you, let me recommend Chandler’s 1950 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder‘ (also the title of a collection of short stories), which I read this afternoon for the first time. A fine piece of literary criticism that’s much more than that. You will find Chandler with a quote now among my quotable writer heroes and heroines; I’ll spend the next weeks trying to get behind Chandler’s secrets. Those he didn’t talk about.