The Everyman’s Library stories, a few of them long unavailable and the rest drawn from two hard-to-find collections, begin to offer an answer by showing how Chandler wrote before he was truly Chandlerian. Mostly written in the ’30s, for such pulp magazines as Black Mask and Dime Detective, in the years running up to the publication of his first novel (The Big Sleep, in 1939), his earliest warm-up exercises feature a kind of proto-Marlowe known as “Mallory”–struggling to bring justice, of course, to an L.A. that probably thought the Morte d’Arthur was an Italian joint on Sunset (Chandler himself was literate enough to recall, no doubt, that the real Sir Thomas Mallory, who gave us our sense of high chivalry, was, in William Gass’s words, “charged with robbing churches, with extortion, with rape, and jailed nine times by our least numerous count”). Earlier detective writers, such as Hammett, had perfected the story of action; Chandler in some sense extended their work into an entire vision, a Pilgrim’s Progress of sorts in a world that had never heard of Bunyan. It’s no surprise that in the course of his career Marlowe comes to the rescue of a woman called Miss Quest and falls for a cop’s daughter called Miss Pride. The very first page of his first novel finds him sidling up to a rich man’s mansion, and taking note of a stained glass panel of a knight in dark armor trying to help a naked lady. If he lived in the house, Marlowe thinks, he’d probably be trying to help the knight.
A little of what Chandler brought to the form, then, is reflected just in the way he took the brute monosyllables of Hammett’s detective–Sam Spade–and turned them into the more flowery and literary-sounding “Mallory” and then “Philip Marlowe.” Yet in the early stories, Chandler is locked inside a bare-bones formula, and trying to embellish it he sounds very much like one of today’s Chandler imitators–“Beautiful hands are as rare as jacaranda-trees in bloom, in a city where pretty faces are as common as runs in dollar stockings.” Three similes appear in three sentences; adjectives are thrown on as if they were exotic spices. One unusual aspect of Chandler’s literary career is that he published his first story only when he was 45–his first novel when he was 50–after a long life as an executive for various oil companies; thus he and his central character are already bruised and disenchanted when we meet them. Yet never without a touch of schoolboy romanticism, and the hope of something better. And even in his often wooden apprentice exercises Chandler had his hold firmly on the two characters that would distinguish him forever–the knight errant detective, living alone with his wounds, and the city, the women, who were usually about to bring him down.
It is always night in his Los Angeles–or so it seems–and the fog is coming in off the ocean while the lights up above, beckoning and half-unreal, belong to the houses of the crooked. Chandler’s gift, always, was to see that the sunshine is the least interesting thing about California; all that is real there happens in the shadows. Darkness, in fact, is what gives dimension to the place, as the bright surfaces of the day are peeled back to reveal something more troubled. In books like The Little Sister Chandler would give us perfect Hollywood novels, in which the exotic Mexican beauty turns out to be a gangster’s moll from Cleveland, and the movie-star comes from Manhattan, Kansas. But all his books, really, are meditations on false fronts and borrowed identities, and a world in which everyone is on the make; Los Angeles is a “paradise of fakers” for which Hollywood is really just a metaphor. Chandler located abortionists, dope addicts and beatniks before the rest of America knew that such characters existed; but deeper than that, he saw how people were beginning to take their cues, their lives, even their sense of themselves from the unreal characters on screen. A man wears a hat in one of the stories “which looked like a reporter’s hat in a movie”; ten pages later, the lobby of a private club “looked like a MGM set for a nightclub.”
The persistent image for the treacherous allure of California is, of course, the blonde (not because Chandler was a misogynist, but only because a beautiful woman was what was most unsettling to a susceptible man alone–and especially a man with a quixotic taste for gallantry). The women in all Chandler’s fiction make for his detectives much more than the men make for them, and there is always the sense–which gives the stories much of their psychological unease–that the same man who can handle killers and low lifes so effectively is undefended, at some level, against women (or, at least, against the softer and more hopeful side of him that women arouse). The real action and tension in most of the stories comes from this intricate dance with attraction. Towards the end of his career Chandler started bringing these themes to the fore, getting Marlowe to reminisce about the love he’s never really gotten over, while the women around him start asking ever more searching and personal questions–“You in show business ?” “Just the opposite of show business. I’m in the hide-and-seek business.” But really that’s unnecessary; the charged space in all of Chandler’s writing is that space, often very small, that separates Marlowe from the woman who’s coming on to him.
The style is the easy thing to admire about Chandler, of course, and his most famous device, the simile, is a perfect way of catching a world in which everyone is playing at being somebody else. “The swell,” you read of the ocean near San Diego, “is as gentle as an old lady singing hymns,” and in that inflection you inhale essence of Chandler. His style (like Hemingway’s) is so easy to imitate that it becomes almost impossible to transcend. Yet one thing about Chandler that put him beyond the reach of many of his disciples is that, beyond the smell of the sage and the sound of the ocean in the distance, the red lights disappearing off towards Ventura and the suburban houses with their curtains drawn in mid-day, what Chandler was really doing was mixing worlds that had seldom heard before of one another’s existence. “People who spend money on second-hand sex jags are as nervous as dowagers who can’t find the rest room,” he writes, typically, in The Big Sleep, and one realizes that few writers conversant with second-hand sex jags were likely to write about dowagers (or vice versa). Much of the spin of his sentences comes from these unlikely juxtapositions (“Strictly speaking,” says a thug in The Little Sister, “we don’t have to get into no snarling match”).
It’s easy to forget, amidst his California settings, that Chandler was classically educated at an English public school (the same school from which P.G. Wodehouse graduated four years before him), and, as the good son of Anglo-Irish gentry, fought in the trenches of World War I with the Gordon Highlanders. California has always been seen best by slightly questioning ironists from abroad (like Chandler’s movie colleagues Hitchcock and Wilder), but in Chandler’s case there was the particular magic of a world of con man and “demi-virgins” being inspected by someone raised on Horace and Victorian hymns. The official biography has Marlowe born in Santa Rosa and educated at the University of Oregon; the real story suggests that he is an English gentleman in mufti set loose on the mean streets of Bugsy Siegel and George Raft.
Chandler had few illusions about England, and one of the most intriguing stories in the Everyman’s collection is the last one in the book, “English Summer,” which, never published in his lifetime, was found, in raw form, in one of his notebooks. It is the only Chandler story I know set in England–and, moreover, a fragrant, never-never England where the seductions of California are made even more chimerical: a woman’s hair here is not blonde but “gold”–and, more, “it was the hair of a princess in a remote and bitter tower.” (Chandler, one recalls, could find even in Bay City a place called the Tennyson Arms). And yet for all the glamour of Lady Lakenham and her Elizabethan home, husbands are being knocked off and women are playing on men’s weaknesses as expertly as in California. “Nasty,” the totemic Chandler word that sounds on the second page of his first story, echoes more plangently as he embraces a murderer, and at times Chandler sounds almost like Lawrence in his rage at England’s proprieties (“so careless, so smooth, so utterly dead inside”).
Yet Marlowe has more than a little in him of the classic public-schoolboy anatomized by John le Carre or Graham Greene–romanticizing the women he doesn’t know what to do with, nursing his pipe and his game of chess, dropping allusions to Eliot and Kierkegaard while thugs cosh him on the head. To the end of his days Chandler could command an English accent, drank the favorite drink of the raj–gin with lime juice–and lived by the code of his school and its famous old boy Ernest Shackleton. When Marlowe finally extends his trust to someone–Terry Lennox, in The Long Goodbye–it is largely because, we feel, the otherwise feckless-seeming Terry speaks in an English accent, has perfect manners and is first seen in a white Rolls-Royce (most dangerous of all, Marlowe believes Terry to be a hero from the foxholes of World War II). When Chandler visualized his books being turned into films, it was not Humphrey Bogart he saw as Philip Marlowe, but, incredibly, Cary Grant.
For all the foreign airs and graces, however, (combined, dangerously, with a naked hatred of the rich), Chandler knew the inside of the grifter’s world as if to the manner born. If you read Kevin Starr’s latest volume in his ongoing history of California–Embattled Dreams, covering the Forties–you realize, shockingly, that Chandler was making none of his material up. L.A.P.D. detectives in the Forties really did wear gold rings and shoot suspects in the back, Starr reports, and when a body was found in the morning, the apartment of the deceased was sometimes on the market by late afternoon (thanks to cops more eager to secure a real estate agency’s commission than to pursue a fleeing murderer). Murders were so common in 1947 that roughly 50 of them were covered only on the back pages of the L.A. Times (where they were devoured by, among others, Thomas Mann), and even after the “Black Dahlia” case of the same year–a naked woman found in a car, sawed in half, her nickname taken from Chandler’s “Blue Dahlia” movie of the year before– there was never any shortage of juicy scandal: William Wanger, producer of Joan of Arc, shooting his wife’s lover in the scrotum, Robert Mitchum being set up in a marijuana bust.