SMACK!


BUT CAN HE MAKE A GOOD POT OF FRENCH DRIP?:
NOTES ON THE STYLE OF RAYMOND CHANDLER
Megan Rocker

Raymond Chandler considered himself a stylist first, and a writer of genre fiction second. In his opinion, "the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time" (Gardiner, 75).

For a man who spent countless hours laboring over each piece of work (he once spent five months working on a short story for the pulps--never learning to edit, he always ended up having to rewrite whole portions of his stories), and who gave his lead character a background so diverse and well informed he could make reference to everything from St. Swithin's day, Pierrot girls, Cremona violins and obscure Shakespeare quotes to the work of Marcel Proust, port cochere, arabesques and how to make the best possible pot of French drip coffee (Marling, 93), Raymond Chandler made a lot of investments in his writing. But true to his words, the first and foremost concern in his work was style. Although he was born in Chicago, Chandler moved to London at an early age where he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. By the time he made his move back to the United States, he was in his mid-twenties and had undergone a full, formal, British Classical education (Marling, 1-11). To create the voice of Philip Marlowe, to write in what Chandler considered "the American language," a language that allowed him to "take murder out of the Venetian vase and [drop] it into the alley" (Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder", 530), Chandler had to learn American English as a foreign language. He had to study and analyze it, take it apart, tinker with it and put it back together again and see if it still ticked in a clockwise manner when he was done (Gardiner, 80).

As a stylist, Chandler claimed to be not overwhelmingly interested in plot devices and elaborate constructions of mysteries, but instead " looking for an excuse for certain experiments in dramatic dialogue" (Gardiner, 219). It was his firm conviction that, although the general public may not admit it, readers just thought they cared about nothing but action and plotting and clues. In all actuality, Chandler said in a letter to Frederick Allen, "the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was creation of emotion through dialogue and description" (Gardiner, 219).

It is this act of creation, this ability to create a literary style in a genre often considered quasi-literary, that makes the works of Raymond Chandler remarkable, and it is on this act of creation and its effect that this essay will focus. There are several key language issues at work in Chandler's fiction: the use of the American colloquial style and the creation of a "tough guy" voice; the use of metaphor, simile and imagery; and how the combination of these two factors, "tough guy" style and imagery, help draw Marlowe and the characters that surround him, and make the writing of Raymond Chandler unique in American literature.


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