There are mystery writers and there are mystery writers. As far as I am concerned, you can take your Agatha Christie’s and your Hammett’s and your Elemore Leonard’s. There is only one murder mystery man for me – Raymond Chandler.
Chandler’s work appeals to me for many reasons – not least the resolute cynicism of his heroes, particularly Phillip Marlowe. People like Marlowe don’t have an easy time of it, they live in a world where the cops are all crooked, dames are either murderesses or seducers, and often both. Where rich men kill for money and the little people get trampled in the rush, where no one is any good, except possibly the hero, and he of course, is flawed.
His characters arrive and depart in a whiff of cigarette smoke (indeed I think Chandler spends more time describing the types of cigarettes his characters suck on, than the weather), and most take any opportunity they can to down a large tumbler of spirits.
But what makes Chandler’s work so utterly brilliant, is his writing. This is a long quote from “The Long Good-bye”, I’ve chosen it because it captures in a few paragraphs the essence of the world Chandler’s characters live in and the frantic desperation with which they live their lives.
“The bar was pretty empty. Three booths down a couple of sharpies were selling each other pieces of Twentieth Century Fox, using double arm gestures instead of money. They had a telephone on the table between them and every two or three minutes they would play the match game to see who called Zanuck with a hot idea. They were young, dark, eager, and full of vitality. They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a far man up four flights of stairs.
There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you wit would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world.”
Anyone who has ever sat in a bar and watched the people in it will know someone like those Marlowe/Chandler is describing. Hell, you might even be one yourself, but I wonder as I re-read it, who the barman is, wearing “that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream”. I don’t know anything about Chandler, but I get the impression that there is a little bit of himself in that barman - watching the world with a jaundiced, cynical eye as he tries not to scream.
"The Long Good-Bye" starts with a friendship, but betrayal follows murder, and is followed suicide. Chandler expertly weaves parallel storylines about and brings them together in a classic ending, which needless to say I won’t ruin for anyone. But ultimately “who dunnit” isn’t the point of novels like this. When you read them, you go along for the ride, not to puzzle it out. Just don’t try and sit at a bar drinking Gimlets as you do, or you’ll end up like a character in a book.