Thursday, February 6, 2014

A daily dose of literary illumination: Pearl Buck vs. Raymond Chandler

Did you know that Raymond Chandler was past the half century mark when his first book came out? Or that he was considered for the Pulitzer Prize the same year that Pearl Buck received it (guess who is read more now!) Those were the first two nuggets that jumped out at me when I read today's entry from Love, Sex, Death & Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature by John Sutherland & Stephen Fender. February 6 is the day that Chandler, age 51, published his first full-length detective novel, The Big Sleep. Chandler's novel was adapted for film the same year as Buck's The Good Earth. You probably know which flick nabbed the Oscar. Can't a gumshoe get an even break? I've never read Buck, although I have a handful of her books. Has anyone else? But back to today's entry:
Chandler came to writing fiction late in life, with career failures dragging behind him. The child of a broken family, he was educated (as he was proud to advertise) at an English public school – Dulwich. He was knocked about in the First World War fighting with the Canadian army, and – before taking to literature – had failed in the California oil industry. Not easy to do at that period, when you could start a gusher in the Long Beach fields with a pickaxe. Given his problems with alcohol in the 1930s, it would have been very wise to steer clear of Ray with a pickaxe in his hand.
Always dominated by his mother, and sexually timid, he married the day after his mother died. His wife, Cissie, was decades older than he. As an acquaintance tartly noted, the new Mrs Chandler was 50 years old, looked 40 and dressed twenty. But she helped Ray dry out, and start a redemptive late career in crime fiction.
Although Chandler remained married to Cissy for 30 years, he wasn't always faithful. However, he continually professed his love for her and was devastated by her death.
He was assisted by the market for high-class, hard-boiled detective fiction created by Black Mask magazine. The journal had been founded in 1920 by H.L. Mencken and his partner, George Jean Nathan, who sold it after a year to be run by various editors until the dominating Captain Joseph T. 'Cap' Shaw took over. Shaw was a former bayonet instructor and a theorist on the subject of the detective story. He demanded from his contributors a clear, uncluttered style and storyline, and he 'Hammettised' the magazine. Dashiell Hammett published the first of his 'Continental Op' stories in Black Mask in October 1922. Erle Stanley Gardner published his first story in the magazine in 1923 and Raymond Chandler published his first short story in Black Mask in 1933. Thereafter he served an apprenticeship with a string of short pieces revolving around various precursors of Philip Marlowe.
The Big Sleep introduces the 38-year-old PI as 'a shop soiled Sir Galahad' taking on the corruption of the southern Californian 'old money' elite (a caste Chandler knew well from his oilman days). The Big Sleep – which does not have an easily followed plot – was filmed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, in 1946. Famously, the director wired the novelist asking him to explain the significance of the murdered chauffeur, only to be told that Chandler himself did not know the answer.
Did Chandler ever luck out with the casting of The Big Sleep: he got Bogey AND Bacall!
For more inside dope on the PI biz, check out The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of their Greatest Detectives; true mystery addicts will also have to own the latest in the Best American Mystery Stories annual series.


  1. I just re-read TBS about three months ago. No publisher would touch it with a 10-foot pole today (the question of the murdered chauffeur being just one issue) but that doesn't stop it from being a damn fine tale.

    I'm quite intrigued to hear that he was a mama's boy. Did not know that.

  2. An attempt at a motive does appear--that someone named Geiger was trying to pin a murder on the chauffeur, but mostly the murder serves to bring police attention on Marlowe and his own investigations...a little bit of heat.
    It's the language rather than the plot that I recall:
    "..Vivian came in. She was in oyster-white lounging pajamas trimmed with white fur, cut as flowingly as a summer sea frothing on the beach of some small and exclusive island."
    "The fist with the weighted tube inside it went through my spread hands like a stone through a cloud of dust."

    Stuff like that!

    1. Wowee! I'm always a sucker for good metaphors & similes!!

  3. A few days ago I finished Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (which for some reason I had never read). Among the notable sentences I found these: "He hoisted a couple of eyebrows that would have interested a Fuller brush man." "I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string." "An hour crawled by like a sick cockroach." "He had short red hair and a face like a collapsed lung." "I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars." "He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight." Not bad for an old man!