CONJUNCTIONS:29 Fall 1997
45 Calibrations of Raymond Chandler
Peter Straub



1. Not long before his death, he wrote, "I have lived my life on the edge of nothing."

2. Those who may speak honestly of the ambiguous but striking privileges granted by a life conducted on the edge of nothing tend to have in common that they have been faced early on with certain kinds of decisively formative experiences. Although it is never mentioned in considerations of his work, when he was six years old and living with his divorced mother in Nebraska, his alcoholic
father, already more an absence than a presence, one day disappeared entirely. Also never mentioned is that in 1918 he was sent into trench warfare as a twenty-year-old sergeant in the Canadian Army and several times led his platoon into direct machine-gun fire. After that, he said later, "nothing is ever the same again."

3. He had no interest in either conventional mysteries or the people who read them.

4. He said: "My theory was that readers just thought that they cared about nothing but the action; that really although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The thing they really cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description."

5. His models were Dumas, Dickens, Flaubert, James and Conrad.

6. He once named a cop Hemingway for his habit of saying the same thing over and over again until you started to think that it had to be pretty good.

7. He could never understand why Americans were incapable of seeing the humor in his work.

8. Shortly after moving to a house outside Palm Springs, he wrote his publisher, Alfred Knopf, "This place bores me."

9. Raymond Chandler did not relish surprises.

10. He did not like looking at the ocean because it had too much water and too many drowned men in it.

11. In a sour moment, he wrote Knopf that he was going to write "one of those books where everyone goes for nice long walks."

12. Late at night, finished with work but unwilling to leave the typewriter, he wrote hundreds of extremely long letters, many of them to people he had never met.

13. Hollywood made him bilious, but he loved film.

14. In his notes for The Blue Dahlia, he said homicide detectives could "be very pleasant or very unpleasant almost without change of expression."

15. He was exasperated by people who told him they so admired his books that they wished he would write one without any murders in it.

16. He actually wrote his English publisher a letter containing the sentence, "Don't think I worry about money, because I don't."

17. He was astonished to be informed that another mystery writer, one distinguished chiefly by his ingenuity, did not enjoy the act of writing. Instantly, it explained to him why he had never been able to read the man's books. Still reeling, he wrote a friend, "The actual writing is what you live for."

18. Throughout his life, he endured a spectacular, even brutal, loneliness.

19. Sometimes in restaurants he was so funny that the people at adjoining tables stopped talking to listen to what he was saying.

20. When J.B. Priestly, author of Angel Pavement and Festival at Farbridge, came to California and held a dinner party in his honor, he failed to appear. It had never occurred to him that his presence might be any more crucial than anyone else's.

21. Upon discovering that it had been, he apologized but did not feel guilty or embarrassed.

22. Neither did he feel guilty or embarrassed when the news of his botched suicide attempt--the bullet did considerable damage to the bathroom but none to the drunken widower of two months holding the gun--appeared in newspapers all over the country. Some of the letters he received as a result of the publicity struck him as incredibly silly.

23. He understood that he was both romantic and sentimental.

24. After his first four books, he thought Philip Marlow was romantic and sentimental, too, and decided that on the whole Marlowe was probably too good to be satisfied with working as a private detective.

25. He almost always knew what he was doing, even while making serious mistakes.

26. The year after his wife died, he was ejected from the Connaught Hotel for having a woman in his room, whereupon he moved to the Ritz.

27. He was unfailingly generous to young writers.

28. He wrote, "Plausibility is largely a matter of style." Later in the same essay, he added, "It takes an awful lot of technique to compensate for a dull style, although it has been done, especially in England."

29. He never won an award. He never networked or traded one favor for another. These things would have appalled him. Had he been offered the Nobel Prize, he would have turned it down because (1) acceptance would involve going to Sweden, dressing up in a tuxedo and giving a speech, and (2) the Nobel Prize had been given to so many second-rate writers that the effort involved in Point One far exceeded its distinction.

30. While a guest in the Stephen Spender household, he imagined that he would soon marry his host's wife, Natasha Spender.

31. He was ripely endowed with the capacities for both love and scorn, sometimes for the same thing. One reason he liked Los Angeles was that he thought it had the personality of a paper cup.

32. Near the end of his life, he consented to become the president of the Mystery Writers of America, although instead of voting for himself he had thrown out his ballot.

33. He died alone at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California. Seventeen people attended the funeral. They were made up of local acquaintances who had not known him well enough to be called friends, representatives of the local MWA chapter and a fanatical collector of mystery first editions named Ned Guymon.

34. He invented a first-person voice remarkable for its sharpness and accuracy of observation, its attention to musical cadence, purity of syntax and unobtrusive rightness of word order, a metaphorical richness often consciously self-parodic, its finely adjusted speed of movement, sureness of touch and its capacity to remain internally consistent and true to itself over a great emotional range. This voice proved to be unimaginably influential during his lifetime and continues to be so now. Real earned authority sometimes has that effect. (While drinking himself to death in the year of Chandler's own death, 1959, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young could look out of his window at the Alvin Hotel to observe the progress of his numerous clones down Broadway to Birdland, where, unlike him, they had gigs. Young said to a friend, "The other ladies, my imitators, are making the money!")

35. None of his imitators, not even the most accomplished, ever came close to surpassing or even matching him.

36. He wrote his English agent, Helga Green, that "to accept a mediocre form and make literature out of it is something of an accomplishment.... We are not always nice people, but essentially we have an ideal that transcends ourselves."

37. Chandler devoted his working life to the demonstration of a principle that should be obvious, that genre writing declares itself first as writing and only secondarily as generic. Because this principle was not always obvious even to himself, he felt defensive about being a mystery writer.

38. He wrote an English girlfriend that "my wife and I just seemed to melt into each other's hearts without the need of words."

39. "The things that last ... come from deeper levels of a writer's being, and the particular form used to frame them has very little to do with their value," he wrote Helga Green.

40. He got better as he went along. Every writer presently alive wishes to do the same.

41. Okay. Playback, his last book, really was pretty bad. On the other hand, after it he began a book in which Palm Springs was renamed "Poodle Springs."

42. He once described his character as "an unbecoming mixture of outer diffidence and inward arrogance."

43. He wrote Helga Green's father, Maurice Guinness, that "... when a writer writes a book, he takes nothing from anyone. He adds to what exists.... There is never enough good writing to go around."

44. He never complained about his endless torment.

45. Writing to Lucky Luciano in preparation for an interview never published, he said, "I suppose we are both sinners in the sight of the Lord."