Thursday, May 06, 2010

What do you mean by "Chandlerian"?

Do you mean trenchcoats, wide-brimmed hats, moody rain and moodier saxophone music, or do you mean this:

"The Filipino's legs began to jump on the floor. His body moved in sudden lunges. The brown of his face became a thick congested purple. His eyes bulged, shot with blood.

"Delaguerra let the wire go loose again.

"The Filipino gasped air into his lungs. His head sagged, then jerked back against the bedpost. He shook with a chill.

"`Si ... I talk,' he breathed."
— "Spanish Blood," 1935

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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32 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

What you said. "Chandlerian" to me is the use of the language.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not even sure what I said. I think some people have in mind the wisecracks one finds in the novels and the movies but that seem far less frequent in the early stories.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

The wisecracks and similes are part of it, but what I picked up from the excerpt you posted yesterday was the entire fabric of his style, and the mood it created. The only writer other than Chandler who can pull me so completely into his world is James Lee Burke in his Dave Robicheaux novels.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, have you read Chandler's early stories? It has struck me in my recent reading that his early style was harsher and less lyrical and romantic that his later style and had fewer wisecracks as well. I'm perfectly willing to talk about a Chandler style as long as the talk takes in his earlier work as well.

May 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, Chandler said about his Black Mask days:

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published . . . Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back.

It could be Chandler was forced to adopt the Black Mask house style, but I think it more likely he didn't have the craft at that stage to do any better.

His short story The Curtain (1936) opens:

The first time I ever saw Larry Batzel he was drunk outside Sardi's in a second-hand Rolls-Royce. There was a tall blonde with him who had eyes you wouldn't forget. I helped her argue him out from under the wheel so that she could drive.
The second time I saw him he didn't have any Rolls-Royce or any blonde or any job in pictures. All he had was the jitters and a suit that needed pressing. He remembered me. He was that kind of drunk.

Seventeen years later he reworked those paragraphs for the opening of The Long Good-bye. The revised version is far superior with more details and better details. The real difference in the writing is in craft, not in style. And he only aquired that craft through constant rewriting.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Since Blogger once again seems to be doing all it can to get me to migrate to Wordpress, here, for the third consecutive day, is a comment that Blogger refuses to post after notifying me that it has arrived:

solo has left a new comment on your post "What do you mean by "Chandlerian"?":

Peter, Chandler said about his Black Mask days:

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published . . . Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back.

It could be Chandler was forced to adopt the Black Mask house style, but I think it more likely he didn't have the craft at that stage to do any better.

His short story The Curtain (1936) opens:

The first time I ever saw Larry Batzel he was drunk outside Sardi's in a second-hand Rolls-Royce. There was a tall blonde with him who had eyes you wouldn't forget. I helped her argue him out from under the wheel so that she could drive.
The second time I saw him he didn't have any Rolls-Royce or any blonde or any job in pictures. All he had was the jitters and a suit that needed pressing. He remembered me. He was that kind of drunk.

Seventeen years later he reworked those paragraphs for the opening of The Long Good-bye. The revised version is far superior with more details and better details. The real difference in the writing is in craft, not in style. And he only aquired that craft through constant rewriting.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, this week I read "Killer in the Rain," significant parts of which later found their way into The Big Sleep.

I know that passage from Chandler that you cited, but I'm not sure the differences I cite here are entirely ones of craft. Irrespective of whatever skills he developed later, the early stories have a harder edge and fewer wisecracks than the novels and perhaps the later stories as well. It's not simply a matter of the later work being better written than the earlier.

Chandler probably did stick to Black Mask style early. In fact, when I speculated a few months ago that a slow-motion death scene in a Chandler story may have influenced filmmakers, someone commented that such scened were common in pulp fiction of the time.

May 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, Spanish Blood sounds like Hammett on an off day. Chandler took a while to crawl out from under that particular shadow.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may be a little more indulgent than you are of Chandler's early style. Hell, that stands to reason; I'm only now reading lots of the stuff. But it's no shock that he'd have worked in Hammett's long shadow early in his career.

May 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, good wisecracks are very hard to do. Even Chandler wasn't much good at them when he started out.

Some lines from Spanish Blood:

He's dead as last Christmas

The brown man screamed thinly, like a hungry kitten.

His voice now had the metallic twang of a plucked banjo string

They're not exceptionally bad lines but they're poor attempts compared with what he achieved in the novels.

Chandler did not consider himself a good short story writer. He thought the expansiveness allowed him in the novel form suited his style better and I think he was probably right in that.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger solea said...

My favorite Chandler short story is Nevada Gas. I find it interesting to look at his inclusion of non-white characters in the short stories, because obviously there was a lot of racism here in LA during that time, and people of color were simply left out (or worse) of the literary & hollywood landscape.

May 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo:

Interesting about Chandler and short stories. I don't know long stories tended to be in the 1930s, but his are pretty long by our standards, about fifty pages each.

You're right that those wisecracls are not great, though the one about the banjo string is arguably not a wisecrack. Those early cracks fall short of the later ones that inspired this.

May 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked "Nevada Gas" very much; I read it immediately before "Spanish Blood."

I've noticed the relatively high numbers of non-white and non-Anglo characters in the stories. The attitudes and language are not always what we consider proper seventy and more years later, but the characters are not entirely stereotypes, foils or noble paragons either. They're not left out, in other words.

May 08, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

though the one about the banjo string is arguably not a wisecrack

Arguably none of them are wisecracks. I was just using that as a generic term for what might be called Chandlerisms: the witty use of description, simile, metaphor, repartee. He mightn't have been great at it when he started out but he got the hang of it quickly and there's hardly been anyone better at it since.

May 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had noticed precisely what you did, that the early cracks, wise or otherwise, seemed like rudimentary efforts toward something he later perfected.

Chandler could have great, extravagant fun with wisecracks. I said what I said about the banjo string simply because I was unsure Chandler intended that one as anything but straightforward description.

Of course, maybe the examples you quoted are weak precisely because Chandler had not made up his mind at that early stage whether he wanted somber description or extravagant fun.

May 08, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I think any aspiring writer should read Chandler's early stories and compare them with similiar passages in the novels and see how good writing doesn't simply emerge fully formed from the brain of some artistic genius but, through hard work and perseverance, is gradually bludgeoned into shape. It would be better than any creative writing course.

Reading the early stories and then the novels is like seeing the Philosopher's Stone in action. You can see base metal being turned into gold.

May 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll buy that, but one should not sell the stories short. They're enjoyable on their own. That one see seeds of the novels (and sometimes entire passages, characters and plot lines later incorporated in the novels) only adds to the pleasure.

May 08, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, are you familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd? Their song Sweet Home Alabame is pretty good and well known but their song Freebird is peculiar in that the live version is so much superior to the studio version.

What has this to do with the current post, you might ask? Not a goddamned thing, I have to confess. It's late at night here in Ireland, my current state is more like that of a lord than a judge, and I'm really enjoying listening to those Southern feckers (God bless their souls) for the first time in ages.

May I include it under the heading of 'extravagent fun'?

May 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may.

I, being like unto a judge, see a connection. The two versions of "Freebird," live and studio, are like two versions of a Chandler tale, novel and short story, one superior to the other.

May 08, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

Wow, I step away for a day and miss all kinds of good stuff.

Peter, I agree completely with your comment about the tone of Chandler's early stories. I bought the Everyman's Library volume of collected stories several years ago, and read it cover to cover. The first thing that struck me is how sparse and dark the writing was compared to what I was used to in the novels and later stories.

Part of that I attribute to Chandler having to fit the mold while establishing himself; part to him learning his craft, and deciding what he wanted his voice to be. When I speak of the atmosphere he creates, I refer to the novels, and some of the later, more nuanced stories, several of which have been mentioned above. My personal favorite, for being as descriptive of Marlowe's personality as anything Chandler ever wrote, is Red Wind.

May 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not keeping score, but I think that by the time of "Guns at Cyrano's" in 1936, the similes start to get wilder and stronger.

May 09, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is slightly off-topic, but it was a topic on a previous post, about old movies.

Just saw "The Man Who Knew Too Much," which was better than I remembered.

What was the question that came up about it? Was it about "Que Sera, Sera" which is Doris Day's signature song in the film, alerting her son to her presence.

May 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have mentioned that version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" because a friend of mine can't stand the movie. He likes old movies, and he likes Hitchcock, but he found that one infuriatingly implausible.

May 10, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oh, I see. Well, it was fun. And so was "Across the Pacific," with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet. This was also implausible.

Bogart single-handedly defeats a whole squad of Japanese soldiers including their leader and brings down a torpoed-laden plane in the Panama Canal.

And a bit too many of anti-Japanese stereotypes and anti-Asian slurs.

But Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet are a good team, as they were in "The Maltese Falcon," and the Bogart/Astor banter is fun to watch.

May 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I enjoyed it as well. If you haven't done so already, you might want to watch the 1934 version. Its atmosphere is a good deal darker, and not just because the movie is in black and white.

May 10, 2010  
Anonymous Martian Momma said...

Chandlerian - wit, poetry and subtle social commentary.

Anyone read Lenny Bartulin's "Death By The Book"? It does a good imitation of Chandler set in modern-day Sydney.

There's a review of it on my blog at http://martianmomma.blogspot.com/2010/03/have-just-finished-reading-deadly.html if you're interested.

Perhaps Chandler's early stuff was bleak because his life was bleak at the time - getting fired from a well-paid job as an oil exec because he was an alcoholic couldn't have been good for his sense of humour.

Maybe his stuff just got funnier as life got better and his mood improved.

May 11, 2010  
Blogger Martian Momma said...

One of Chandler's gifts was to provide social commentary disguised as entertainment: -

“The law isn’t justice. It’s a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law ever was ever intended to be.”

Lawyer, Sewell Endicott in "The Long Goodbye" to Phillip Marlowe, after he's jailed for failing to co-operate with the police.

May 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Commentary especially on corruption in high places and the lives down-and-outers have to live. A few current crime writers emphasize such corruption, but the effect seems less, perhaps because readers expect political and other official corruption in their daily lives.

Thanks for the link; I'll take a look. Perhaps I can add Lenny Bartulin to this list of international crtme writers influenced by Chandler.

May 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe his stuff just got funnier as life got better and his mood improved.

Now, there's a novel possibility for a writer of hard-boiled crime stories.

One doesn't find characters with names like Sewell Endicott these days. His may be a uniquely American kind of comment, and perhaps all the more cynical for it. European crome writers such as Andrea Camilleri or Jean-Claude Izzo might make fun of official corruption or suggest that it benefits those with the right connections. But none that I could think of would write a passage so heavy with disillusion as Sewell Endicott's declaration.

May 11, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I'll buy that, but one should not sell the stories short.
Agreed: one can get too 'sniffy' about those early 'pulp stories', just as writers of 'serious', indeed, 'precious' fiction have been known to get about crime fiction.
But for me the 'art' of those stories is in both whats left out, and what they leave to the readers' imagination, even the way they respect the readers intelligence
(at least in the case of the better class of writer, such as Chandler surely always was)

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But for me the 'art' of those stories is in both whats left out, and what they leave to the readers' imagination, even the way they respect the readers intelligence

Hmm, do you mean they describe violence in less detail than some crime stories do today?

May 15, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

not necessarily, although I'm not sufficiently au fait with modern-day crime novels to state one way or the other; but what I meant was that the art of the spare prose is to just say enough that the reader can fill in what you meant if you had spelled it out

May 15, 2010  

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