Born July 23 (The Day of Uncertainty Resolvers)
“The voice on the telephone seemed to be sharp and peremptory, but I didn’t hear too well what it said – partly because I was only half awake and partly because I was holding the receiver upside down. I fumbled it around and grunted. “
So begins Raymond Chandler’s last novel Playback, with the unmistakable terse prose and shadowy humor that so clearly identifies and endears him to his readers. Once Chandler introduced his protagonist Philip Marlowe in his 1939 iconic classic The Big Sleep, his literary alter-ego narrator was created and his career was finally launched for good. The fact that six years later Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred in the movie of the same name, certainly did not hurt sales of The Big Sleep, also considering the fact that the film’s popularity led to a re-release starring tough guy Robert Mitchum. An interesting anecdote related during the making of the original film was that Chandler received a telegram desperately asking him whether the chauffeur in the book had committed suicide or was murdered; Chandler is supposed to have said: ”Dammit, I didn’t know either.” The heart-pumping ending, featuring a loud, brutal gunfight between Marlowe and Eddie Mars and his gang is still just as exciting today as it was over 60 years ago. By the way, one of the scriptwriters of the film, who took Chandler’s original book and rewrote it, was a guy named William Faulkner, not a bad writer himself.
Yet in the genre of American mystery and detective fiction there are two names that stand out, not one, and the other beside Chandler was of course Dashiell Hammett, the creator of the Sam Spade mysteries. Although both Chandler and Hammett were almost the same age (Chandler was actually a couple of years older and died a couple of years before Hammett), it was Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man) who first published some of his best known detective thrillers, taking the lead in this genre, closely followed by Chandler who was very respectful of Hammett, influenced and in some ways awed by him. Neither man actually wrote many novels (Chandler only 7 and Hammett only 5, but both wrote lots of pulp fiction for crime magazines. This in contrast to many other who-dunnit writers, such as Agatha Christie (80, featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot), Ngaio Marsh (32, starring Roderick Alleyn), Ross McDonald (18, private-eye Lew Archer).
Chandler chose to set his thrillers against the backdrop of Los Angeles, while Hammett used San Francisco. In doing so they not only provided their readers with a combination of exciting and finely crafted prose but also a sociological insight into the lives of these vibrant cities. Chandler’s problems with drink were catastrophic, often rendering him sick and depressed, unable to write for weeks and months on end. Although he was able to find work re-writing Hollywood screenplays as a kind of script doctor and was forced to watch others rewrite his own novels to create screenplays, he never really enjoyed his association with Hollywood.
Chandler was primarily a writer, a true novelist, who took a genre associated with schlock, pulp fiction and elevated it to the position of literature. His works, with their unique and unmistakable style, have garnered many accolades from writers and critics alike. As the Literary Review critic wrote of him: “Raymond Chandler was one of the finest prose writers of the twentieth century…Age does not wither Chandler’s prose…He wrote like an angel.”
– Gary Goldschneider