Lessons from Raymond Chandler
by Laura Kelly Robb
It’s no secret that Raymond Chandler’s mystery novels weren’t known for their plots. The stories could meander, dally and double back on themselves. In The Big Sleep, the lead character, private eye Phillip Marlowe, solves what seems to be the central mystery halfway into the book, and without clear motivation Marlowe takes on a new assignment.
Far from sinking Chandler as a writer, his plots served him well. The what and why were but vehicles for his who: his desperate run-aways, cops with a past, lovelorn felons, and the colorful list goes on. Readers loved his characters and Chandler will remain in the pantheon because of it. To get to an understanding of how he captured his readership, a look at three of his novels, The Big Sleep, Lady in the Lake, and Farewell My Lovely, can teach a reader about his magic. Chandler made his characters unforgettable in a variety of ways.
Surprise Word Choices
While Chandler needed plain vocabulary just like the rest of us to get characters from point A to point B, he also was able to surprise with uncanny comparisons and unpredictable descriptions. He left little white space for pedestrian sentences.
In the following, Marlowe approaches Joe Brody for the first time in The Big Sleep:
He brought a cigarette from behind the door and tucked it between his lips and drew a little smoke from it. The smoke came towards me in a lazy, contemptuous puff and behind it words in a cool, unhurried voice that had no more inflection than the voice of a faro dealer.
The trick of attaching the adjective “contemptuous” to the smoke, and not the person, draws a more subtle picture of the character and in the process makes us like Marlowe more for not slapping a label on a person he had yet to meet.
Later in the book, Marlowe finds Vivian Regan recklessly gambling at a roulette table, and he overhears two gentlemen onlookers who stepped away from the table to discuss the stakes:
“It gives me the itch,” the other one said. “She’s betting a grand at a crack. She can’t lose.” They put their beaks in their drinks, gurgled swiftly, and went back.
Chandler uses the words “beaks” and “gurgled” to suggest these men are chattering like birds, enchanted by the excitement of money. The description lets the reader know the gossipy nature of her social circle and her impact on otherwise sophisticated players. Chandler had a tremendous talent for creating a three-dimensional scene.
Punching Up the Dialogue
Dialogue helps a writer move a story forward and helps define the characters by giving them a distinctive voice. Chandler used the normal tags, like he said or she said, but also often substituted more varied verbs along with a phrase of comparison or description to convey the attitude of the speaker.
In Farewell My Lovely, Lindsay Marriott greets Phillip Marlowe:
“Oh, yes. Let me see, your name is –“ he paused and frowned in the effort of memory. The effect was as phony as the pedigree of a used car…He opened the door wide with a fingertip, as though opening the door himself dirtied him a little.
And similarly, from The Lady in the Lake, when Marlowe surprises Mrs. Fallbrook:
“Why you perfectly loathsome man,” she squawked. “Don’t you dare touch me! Don’t you take a single step towards me! I won’t stay in this house another minute with you. How dare you be so insulting –” She caught her voice and snapped it in mid-air like a rubber band.
The word “squawked” suggests an image of a nervous, perhaps unsteady, woman but Chandler adds the part about her voice snapping to heighten our suspicion. Is Mrs. Fallbrook alarmed and caught off guard, or is she in the midst of a well-controlled performance?
Occasionally, Chandler would shade a speaker’s attitude with a phrase simply put, as here from a dialogue with Lindsay Marriott in Farewell, My Lovely:
He gave me a quick, darting frown.
Chandler often darted around the use of an adverb in favor of a more subtle description, and in that way conveyed less conviction and more impression. The reader accompanies Marlowe in his investigation rather than being led by the nose.
Hyperbole and Humor
Chandler had a wonderful touch for the splashiest aspects of his characters. He seemed to have fun with the outstanding and unusual people Marlowe would run into in his investigations.
In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe sees a picture of the prominent Mrs. Grayle:
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
From the same novel, Chandler describes his entry into Lindsay Marriott’s home:
The carpet almost tickled my ankles.
In The Big Sleep, Marlowe confronts Joe Brody, whom he suspects of stealing a cache of pornography in order to run his own rental business:
‘It’s no racket for bums,” I told Brody almost affectionately. “It takes a smooth worker like you, Joe. You’ve got to get confidence and keep it. People who spend their money for second-hand sex jags are as nervous as dowagers who can’t find the rest room.”
The risk of using humor is that not all jokes age well. What Chandler chose to underline or exaggerate are aspects we may no longer find as humorous as did people in the 30’s and 40’s. The lesson is double-edged, but I appreciated Chandler for taking enough runs at a clever line that many of them still stick.
The Three-Dimensional Setting
Chandler described the surroundings in his stories in a way that supported his characters and made them more believable. His descriptions of the surroundings often injected tension and foreboding into a scene, making the desperate acts of his players seem likely and, at times, rational.
In The Big Sleep, Marlow conspires to ask for help to fix a flat on a dark night from the men he has been tracking. He is in the suspect’s garage and things are not going well. The garage door opens:
Feet crunched outside and the door was pushed open. The light hit pencils of rain and made silver wires of them. Art trundled two muddy flats in sullenly, kicked the door shut, let one of the flats fall over on its side. He looked at me savagely.
Chandler has a knack for making the reader believe that danger is around every corner. In Lady in the Lake, Marlowe believes he is alone in a suspect’s home:
In the silence time passed. It passed in the dry whirr of the electric clock on the mantel, in the far-off toot of an auto horn on Aster Drive, in the hornet drone of a plane over the foothills across the canyon, in the sudden lurch and growl of the electric refrigerator in the kitchen…I started along the rug towards the archway in the back. A hand in a glove appeared on the slope of the white metal railing, at the edge of the archway, where the stairs went down. It appeared and stopped.
In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe takes a ride to the outskirts of Los Angeles with the strange henchman of a potential client:
Then there were no more houses, just the still dark foothills with an early star or two above them, and the concrete ribbon of road and a sheer drop on one side into a tangle of scrub oak and manzanita where sometimes you can hear the call of the quails if you stop and keep still and wait. On the other side of the road was a raw clay bank at the edge of which a few unbeatable wild flowers hung on like naughty children that won’t go to bed.
In that passage, the reader is made to feel the character’s regret at agreeing to take a ride with the henchmen as he looks out the window and considers what is probably his last view of a beloved landscape.
Any reader or writer who wonders how the masters delivered one satisfying read after another won’t go wrong taking a slow stroll through the novels and stories of Raymond Chandler.
About the Author
Laura Kelly Robb writes mystery and suspense novels. The Laguna Shores Research Club, published by TouchPoint Press in 2022, tells the story of an artist in St. Augustine whose search for her neighbor’s killer reveals a web of corruption. A sequel is expected in 2024. A fan of history, outdoor sports, and yoga, Laura lives on the Georgia coast and takes a break from the heat each summer in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. She loves to hear from readers at [email protected].
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