Three things Raymond Chandler taught me about writing

Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler

One of my beta readers said that a draft of The Vault of Perfection, the sci-fi novel I’m currently revising, reminded her of Raymond Chandler‘s novels. It’s a compliment I hardly deserve, but it came as a surprise, because I’d never read any of his books. I knew he had pioneered the “hard-boiled detective” novel, penning The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and others. But I knew the work primarily from movies I watched on TV as a kid.

That led me back to the motion pictures, which are some of the best film noir dramas of the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart, one of my favorite actors, starred as Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe in the 1946 version of The Big Sleep. It’s Bogart’s lispy voice I associate with the cynical, wisecracking gumshoe, which has been parodied in everything from A Prairie Home Companion (Guy Noir, Private Eye) to a whole slate of comedy movies.

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched The Big Sleep twice and listened carefully to the dialog. I also listened to actor Elliott Gould’s reading of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely as audiobooks.  This was a deliberate decision; I wanted to hear Chandler’s use of language, not read it. It’s the sound of his writing that attracted me to his style in the first place. He has a distinctive cadence that I could appreciate as a former radio reporter who wrote a lot of news scripts.  Here’s three specific things I’ve learned:

Dialog as Fencing Match — Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a pessimist who has no patience with hypocrites. This expresses itself in the wisecracks he exchanges with other characters, such as crooked cops, and repartee with clients who want more than they’re letting on. I learned to fence as a teenager and these scenes remind me of the thrusts, parries and ripostes my fencing master taught me. When Marlowe hits a target, I want to shout “Touche!” With Chandler, dialog is a contact sport, a competition between two characters that teases out their views of each other.

I Am The Face — One of the great lines in western literature asks this question: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” It’s a character in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus discussing Helen of Troy. I’ve often had trouble describing faces; you can only go so far with “blue eyes, roman nose, and thin mouth.” Chandler prefers Marlowe’s (Odd name coincidence, eh?) method, combining the straightforward description with lines such as “”To say she had a face that would have stopped a clock would have been to insult her. It would have stopped a runaway horse,” and “She’s a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud.” This approach offers a ton of leeway for creating character by having Marlowe describe something with his unique perspective.

Not Too Simile — Chandler overuses the simile, that is, showing something by comparing it to something else, as in “face like a bucket of mud.” Sometimes he can load two or three similes a page. I see similes and metaphor as spices that can make a story too hot and drown out the text, which might be just as tasty. On the other hand, Chandler can be hilarious with his comparisons, as in “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” Here, he skewers phoniness in a way only Philip Marlowe could get away with.

What’s your favorite Chandlerism?

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