Raymond Chandler Chandler, Raymond - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Chandler, Raymond 1888-1959

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, poet, and critic.

Along with Dashiell Hammett, Chandler elevated the genre known as the hard-boiled detective story into an American art form still imitated in literature, television, and motion pictures. Chandler's short fiction, following the formula writing required by the genre, is marked by lurid violence and action but displays his wisecracking wit, knack for dialogue, and love of metaphor and simile. The stories feature alienated middle-aged male characters—often private eyes—with high ideals who work against great odds to right wrongs. Unlike contemporary English mystery writers, who employed intricate plotting and puzzle-solving, and portrayed stereotypical characters and events, Chandler placed more emphasis on developing his characters and their motivations and used a sophisticated literary style that was uncommon in the pulp detective genre. In addition, his works, set primarily in Los Angeles in the 1930s, represent to many the essence of southern California: the superficialities of Hollywood, crime and vice glossed over with wealth, the cult of glamor, and a certain enduring mystery that eludes precise definition.

Biographical Information

Chandler was born in Chicago. When he was seven years old, his parents divorced and he was taken by his mother to live in England. While there he received a thorough education in the classics and displayed a strong interest in languages. As a young man Chandler wrote poetry, reviews, and essays for The Academy and The Westminster Gazette. When he returned to the United States at the age of 24, however, he settled in California and opted for a career as a businessman in the oil industry. After losing his job many years later, he began to study the pulp detective magazines such as Black Mask, and familiarized himself with the narrative devices of such successful authors in the genre as Erle Stanley Gardner—creator of Perry Mason—and Dashiell Hammett. Chandler developed a mastery of the American language in its slang and idiom, later commenting that he preferred it to the language spoken in England because of its vitality and versatility. Ultimately, he brought his highly original talent for characterization and description to the market with considerable success. A slower and more methodical worker than most of his fellow detective-fiction writers, his alcoholism and the long-term illness of his mucholder wife, Cissy, affected his ability to produce much work toward the end of his life, though the writing he left behind after his death in 1958 continues to generate interest and debate, as well as to inspire imitators.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Chandler's initial efforts in fiction were short stories written for pulp detective magazines such as Black Mask and, later, Dime Detective. In the beginning, he had little experience with mystery stories, either as a reader or a writer. He taught himself the tough-guy form by rewriting plots that appeared in the magazines and in 1933 he submitted his first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," to Black Mask. This dark tale of extortion and racketeering contains all the hard-boiled genre's conventional tropes: violence, corrupt officials, gangsters and gun molls, and a detective with a fast gun and a code of ethics. In the next five years Chandler published sixteen short stories of the same ilk, mostly in Black Mask. They feature early prototypes of his hero, detective Philip Marlowe, and display Chandler's growing adeptness with dialogue, characterization, thematic development, and the voice and viewpoint of the detective figure. In these early pieces, Chandler experimented with style and narrative technique, eventually finding the most success with the first-person point of view. His privateeye heroes are essentially the same in each work—grizzled and alienated romantics who hold to an ideal of gallantry. By the late 1930s Chandler was feeling limited by the short story form and turned his attention to novels. The greater popularity of these works allowed the publication of his collected short stories. Five Murders appeared in 1944, five years after his first major novel, The Big Sleep, was published. Other short story collections surfaced routinely after that, though the stories were primarily written prior to the period in which Chandler wrote his novels. The collections include Five Sinister Characters (1945), Red Wind (1946), and Pearls Are a Nuisance (1953). From these stories he created the plots for his early novels through a process he termed "cannibalizing"—a method in which he reworked several previously published pieces of short fiction into a sustained story.

Critical Reception

Many modern-day critics see Chandler's short stories as a training ground for his novels. While some commentators have described these early works as formula pieces, poorly plotted, overly talkative, and contrived, others have observed that the crisp, declarative style, terse characterization, wit, and ominous tone of Chandler's novels can be discerned in his stories, which served as a training ground for the author. Chandler himself said that if he had written too well for the pulp magazines, he would not have been published. His writing style and several opening scenes in his novels and short stories still elicit considerable admiration. Nevertheless the hard-boiled detective type and Chandler's use of metaphors and similes have been more often parodied than praised. The majority of critics acknowledge that Chandler's use of simile is somewhat overdone and that his writing is occasionally marred by sentimentality but most also note that his work has a literary sophistication, which some critics have remarked elevated the genre to the level of an art form. Throughout his career, critics have noted his weak plotting and narrative structure, pointing out that he preferred to develop character and style. Overall, it is for these latter two qualities, as well as for an arresting and gritty portrayal of southern California in the 1930s, that Chandler's works of short fiction are chiefly praised.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Five Murders 1944

Five Sinister Characters 1945

Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories 1946

Spanish Blood 1946

Finger Man and Other Stories 1947

The Simple Art of Murder 1950

Trouble Is My Business: Four Stories from "The Simple Art of Murder" 1951

Pick-Up on Noon Street 1952

Pearls Are a Nuisance 1953

Killer in the Rain 1964

The Smell of Fear 1965

Smart-Aleck Kill 1976

Other Major Works

The Big Sleep (novel) 1939

Farewell, My Lovely (novel) 1940

The High Window (novel) 1942

The Lady in the Lake (novel) 1943

The Little Sister (novel) 1949

The Long Goodbye (novel) 1953

Playback (novel) 1958

Raymond Chandler Speaking (letters, essays, short story, and unfinished novel) 1962

Chandler Before Marlowe: Raymond Chandler's Early Prose and Poetry, 1908-1912 (poetry, essays, and criticism) 1973

The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler and " English Summer: A Gothic Romance" (notebooks and short story) 1976

Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (letters) 1981

Raymond Chandler (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Simple Art of Murder," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 174, No. 6, December, 1944, pp. 53-9.

[In the following essay, Chandler describes what he believes is good mystery fiction.]

The detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Second-rate items outlast most of the high-velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about as dull.

This fact is annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating...

(The entire section is 5956 words.)

J. B. Priestley (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Close-up of Chandler," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIII, No. 1618, March 16, 1962, pp. 379-80.

[In the following review of Raymond Chandler Speaking, Priestley assesses Chandler's story-telling skills and his efforts to turn murder mysteries into literature. ]

Raymond Chandler Speaking offers us various unpublished pieces, including several chapters from the novel he left unfinished at his death, and a large number of letters written to his publishers, agents, fellow writers and various friends. It is a rather more solid book than it would first appear to be, and Chandler's many admirers will find it good value. Young writers chiefly concerned with...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)

Wilson Pollock (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Man with a Toy Gun," in The New Republic, Vol. 146, No. 19, May 7, 1962, pp. 21-2.

[In the following review of Raymond Chandler Speaking, Pollock describes Chandler's writings in light of significant events in his life. ]

Following in Dashiell Hammett's footsteps, Raymond Chandler brought a new vigor to detective fiction. His books sold in the millions but they were detective stories not serious literature, and so he was never invited to join the Boys in the Back Room, not even for a short beer. He died in La Jolla, California, March 26, 1959, at the age of 70. Raymond Chandler Speaking is a collection of excerpts from letters to friends,...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

Philip Durham (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tale-Teller," in Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight, The University of North Carolina Press, 1963, pp. 22-30.

[In the following essay, Durham examines Chandler's published short stories, praising his evocative descriptions of character and the city of Los Angeles. ]

Thousands of ghost-like flimsy wooden derricks were standing throughout the Los Angeles Basin, the Dabney-Johnston Oil Corporation (soon to move to tiny quarters at 620 West Olympic Boulevard with only one company, the South Basin, remaining) was still operating, but Raymond Chandler, in 1933, was no longer in the oil business. His separation from business,...

(The entire section is 2361 words.)

Philip Durham (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Technique," in Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight, The University of North Carolina Press, 1963, pp. 106-29.

[In the following essay, Durham analyzes Chandler's narrative technique, noting his lively prose, elegant expression, and belief that style was more important than plot]

In England early in 1954 Ralph Partridge, in The New Statesman and Nation, wrote that although there was a "jarring note of sentimentality" in The Long Goodbye, the "crusading" Marlowe was, nevertheless, a "remarkable creation"—"the perpetually crucified redeemer of all our modern sins." Almost alone among the reviewers, Partridge...

(The entire section is 6567 words.)

Philip Durham (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Killer in the Rain, by Raymond Chandler, Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1964, pp. vii-xi.

[In the following essay, Durham discusses Chandler's efforts to develop his short detective stories into serious novels concerned with themes of social injustice. ]

During his lifetime Raymond Chandler published twenty-three short stories. Yet of this relatively small output only fifteen are generally known to the reading public. For a quarter of a century the remaining eight have lain buried in the crumbling pages of old pulp magazines. And these eight stories are among his finest.

For one who became, with Dashiell Hammett, a leading writer of...

(The entire section is 1932 words.)

E. M. Beekman (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler & An American Genre," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 149-73.

[In the following essay, Beekman maintains that Chandler's writings transcend the ordinary limitations of mystery-detective fiction through the author's acute consciousness of style and expert use of simile, metaphor, and characterization. ]

The Traditional Detective Novel is not a novel at all but an intellectual game on the level of acrostics or checkers. Like any other game it answers to certain strict rules and such injunctions have been legislated by such early practitioners as Dorothy Sayers, S. S. Van Dine, Freeman Wills Crofts, not to...

(The entire section is 9500 words.)

Julian Symons (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler: An Aesthete Discovers the Pulps," in Critical Observations, Ticknor & Fields, 1981, pp. 156-65.

[In the following essay, Symons traces stylistic developments in Chandler's works and characterizes the author as a romantic aesthete primarily concerned with the literary quality of his writings.]

Fairyland is Everyman's dream of perfection, and changes, dream-like, with the mood of the dreamer. For one it is a scene of virgin, summery Nature undefiled by even the necessary works of man . . . For another it is a champaign, dotted with fine castles, in which live sweet ladies clad in silk, spinning, and singing as they spin,...

(The entire section is 4351 words.)

Jerry Speir (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Raw Material: The Short Stories," in Raymond Chandler, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, pp. 85-104.

[In the following essay, Speir discusses how Chandler's short stories evolved into novels and argues that the pulp stories were an essential stage in Chandler's development as a novelist. ]

Chandler's novels, of course, followed his noteworthy career as a writer of short stories for popular "pulp" magazines. A survey of those stories gives evidence of considerable experimentation in subject matter, style, point of view, and detective types which contributed to the novels' later success. Some of the stories were "cannibalized," as Chandler put it, into...

(The entire section is 8073 words.)

Roy Meador (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chandler in the Thirties: Apprenticeship of an Angry Man," in Book Forum, Vol. VI, No. 2, 1982, pp. 143-53.

[In the following essay, Meador discusses Chandler's early writing career, tracing the development of his use of language and his social attitudes, while also describing the creation of his chief fictional heroDetective Philip Marlowe. ]

Los Angeles in the 1930s was not a sleepy village as Marlowe describes it in The Little Sister. The city he sentimentally recalls there is adrift somewhere in the past, kept alive through the remembering words of Raymond Chandler:

I used to like this town. A long time...

(The entire section is 3337 words.)

Edward Margolies (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler: The Smell of Fear," in Which Way Did He Go?: The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald, Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982, pp. 33-52.

[In the following essay, Margolies presents an overview of Chandler's career, commenting on his themes, style, and characters, as well as placing his works in their cultural and historical contexts.]

Raymond Chandler was [Dashiell] Hammett's principal successor—his melancholy, tough-talking hero, Philip Marlowe, is one of the best-known and widely imitated popular heroes of the 1940s. Marlowe is a six-foot-tall, thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who works for...

(The entire section is 8630 words.)

William Marling (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Looking for a Knight: The Short Stories," in Raymond Chandler, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 51-72.

[In the following essay, Marling surveys Chandler's short stories, addressing issues of plot, character, and style in each. ]

Before he invented Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Chandler created prototypes in gambler Johnny De Ruse, policeman Sam Delaguerra, vice detective Pete Anglich, hotel dick Steve Grayce, and man-about-town Ted Malvern. His best effort was a private detective named Mallory, after the author of Le Morte d'Arthur. Later Chandler changed his name to Carmady, and finally to John Dalmas.

Mallory appears in...

(The entire section is 8992 words.)

James Wolcott (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler's Smoking Gun," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 29, September 25, 1995, pp. 99-102, 104.

[In the following essay, Wolcott discusses Chandler's works in light of current literary tastes. ]

Lined up on the shelves in their glossy black jackets, the books constituting the Library of America resemble tiny, shiny coffins. Modelled on the portable French Pléiades editions of classic authors, the Library of America is the final resting place for writers—where they receive their induction into the canon and a chance for rediscovery by the common reader, assuming there are any left. Until now, the authors whom the Library has chosen have been...

(The entire section is 3679 words.)

Donald Lyons (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Raymond Chandler: Stories & Early Novels and Later Novels & Other Writings, in The American Spectator, Vol. 28, No. 11, November, 1995, pp. 78-9.

[In the following review, Lyons favorably critiques the Library of America's two-volume edition of Chandler's collected writing.]

The Library of America has just issued a two-volume edition of Raymond Chandler—pulp fiction on Olympus! When word came to Chandler in the Elysian Fields that he was to report for a meeting with Emerson and Melville, he must have felt, somewhat like his hero Philip Marlowe:

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning,...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bruccoli, Matthew J. Raymond Chandler: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979, 146 p.

Thorough primary bibliography with a selection of secondary materials.


MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York: Dutton, 1976, 306 p.

Definitive source on Chandler's life, beliefs, and writings.


Elliott, George P. "Raymond Chandler." In A Piece of Lettuce: Personal Essays on Books, Beliefs, American Places, and Growing Up in a Strange Country, pp. 50-65. New York: Random House, 1957....

(The entire section is 549 words.)