By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
The original blurb for Raymond Chandler's Farewell, my Lovely published in 1940,
and sold for $2.00, reads:
"Shocks, thrills ... hard-boiled ... murder, extortion ... rackets and depravities ... criminal fringes ..."
It's the usual stuff given as tribute and description of this masterful writer who struggled unevenly and often despondently to make a living as a writer. Consider though that he was writing this book in 1939 and even though he had a sort of hit behind him (The Big Sleep) he was still, as they used to say, under the gun. He needed money. He was only barely recognized for the genius he was, practically inventing a medium which, in our own dystopian time, has become the common parlance of the novel.
I would take that even further. I would venture to say that anyone wishing to write a successful first-person story – whether memoir or crime novel or any novel for that matter – ought to read Chandler. He is the sine qua non, the datum point, the bottom line for any writer, really, because what he does is lead the reader by the nose, forcing the page turning, making the reader do what readers are supposed to do: READ.
Try this paragraph:
"He waved his cigarette. His aquamarine eyes had a faintly thoughtful expression, but his lips smiled. The kind of smile that goes with a silk noose."
Not only is this a kind of unparalleled poetry, but it's also so full of inchoate tension that you are driven to read more about this character. On you go. Reading.
Chandler is so good at writing that he can make a simple set of stairs seem geometrically fascinating. Climbing the stairs, his narrator, Marlowe, pauses to look back at the sea behind him: "When I reached the top the sparkle had gone from the water and a seagull with a broken trailing leg was twisting against the offsea breeze. I sat down on the damp cold top step and shook the sand out of my shoes and waited for my pulse to come down into the low hundreds. I shook my shirt loose from my back and went along to the lighted house which was the only one within yelling distance of the steps."
In this one paragraph Chandler teaches a raft of rules on the roster of good writing. Sentient detail. Irrelevant but useful, tempo-setting detail: the seagull. The pulse beat. The shirt sticking to the back and being loosed. The lighted house. The yelling distance. Okay, enough, you're saying. But I say you cannot get enough of this stuff. The writing courses try to teach it, but there is no better teacher than Raymond Chandler. It doesn't matter what you are writing; he can teach you to write better. He can show you exactly how to put the point on the pencil and the word on the page.
I believe one of my old friends and editors was correct when she said, "There's too much writing going on and not enough reading." If Ursula K. Le Guin is right, and the golden age of reading has passed, we need, more than ever, to go back to classics and read, re-read, study. Then do it all over again. Chandler did.