Raymond Chandler Short Fiction Analysis
Joseph T. Shaw, editor of Black Mask, the leading pulp detective magazine of the 1930’s, remarked upon receiving Raymond Chandler’s first story that the author was either a genius or crazy. He must have decided in favor of genius, for he accepted “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” in 1933 and paid Chandler the standard rate of a penny a word, or $180.00.
Chandler reveals in his letters that he taught himself to write for the pulps by reading back issues. He gives full credit to Dashiell Hammett, who wrote stories that commented on contemporary life using the detective story or puzzle framework. Chandler, however, surpasses his mentor in his use of the language. His ability to hear the American vernacular and to transfer it onto the printed page may be his strongest point as a writer. This trait helps to explain Chandler’s often aimless sentences and strange word order. His classical education in England made him aware of the finer points of language and of the uses of slang. His characters reveal themselves through their language. Since his fiction describes the interplay between levels or classes in society, the speech of his characters as identifying labels is paramount.
Chandler’s major themes also deserve consideration. His close examination, in both short stories and novels, of society at large reveals a concern for humanity equal to that of Mark Twain. He wrote in almost every work of fiction about human behavior. True, his characters often came from the criminal element, but his works show that the criminal element (or at least the vices of that element) extends into all levels of society, that greed, pride, and violence have no basis in economic or social status. His revelation of Southern California of the 1930’s to 1950’s offers a view not found in other media of that era.
Chandler’s ability to set a scene or mood is also remarkable. “Red Wind” takes its title from the prevailing weather phenomenon present at the time of the story.There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.
Although the wind does not figure in the events of the story, it sets a mood in which the story seems plausible, in spite of several coincidences that the reader may wonder over. As if Chandler realizes this, he seems to joke with the reader:“There’s a hell of a lot of coincidences in all this business,” the big man said. “It’s the hot wind,” I grinned. “Everybody’s screwy tonight.”
Chandler never lets the reader wonder about a room or a house. The unusual Southern California locations for his scenes seem to be designed as if for a Hollywood set.We sat down and looked at each other across a dark floor, on which a few Navajo rugs and a few dark Turkish rugs made a decorating combination with some well-used overstuffed furniture. There was a fireplace, a small baby grand, a Chinese screen, a tall Chinese lantern on a teakwood pedestal, and gold net curtains against lattice windows. The windows to the south were open. A fruit tree with a white-washed trunk whipped about outside the screen, adding its bit to the noise from across the street.
Chandler felt that such detail helped to build character as well as set the scene. He considered that many readers wanted more than the barest plot filled with action, and his success bears him out.
Chandler’s humor is an important element of his work. Perhaps realizing that stories filled with violence and murder need some relief, he frequently allows his narration to entertain the reader. When a man is shot in a bar in “Red Wind,” Dalmas relates that “the guy took a week to fall down.” In describing the beautiful girl in the story, he tells readers: “She had brown wavy hair under a wide-brimmed straw hat with a velvet band and loose bow. She had wide blue eyes and eyelashes that didn’t quite reach her chin.” As a car leaves the scene of a murder, Dalmas “got its license number the way I got my first million.” He doesn’t “like being a witness” because “the pay’s too low.” The humor presented through the first-person narrator makes him human; he remains a believable, if somewhat exaggerated, character; and he remains a stabilizing force in an otherwise inhuman world. Chandler was aware of the extent of the exaggeration called for by the formula. He wrote “Pearls Are a Nuisance” as a deliberate parody of the type.
Chandler’s private eyes invariably find much more action and a more involved plot than the reader suspects, a fact which makes his stories difficult to synopsize. The detective follows one lead to another and ends up walking a narrow path between the mob and the police as new characters appear on the scene. Although the citizen being protected is usually female, Chandler was not afraid to include a woman as the villain. Carol Donovan in “Goldfish” is meaner and tougher than her male rivals, but Carmady (another Marlowe prototype) is equal to the task. Someone else shoots Carol, but only after Carmady has slugged her in the jaw to provide the opportunity.
Chandler is best known as a writer of detective fiction, and he deserves much credit for the phenomenal growth of the genre in popular literature, but his contributions to serious literature and film continue to be recognized by readers and scholars. His revelation of Southern California to the world is unique among his writing peers; his view of human behavior moves his stories into a context encompassing all of the...
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