Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ray Day

By Reece Hirsch

If I could propose a new national holiday I think it would be July 23 – Raymond Chandler’s birthday. There were great hard-boiled writers before Chandler like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, but Chandler formulated a way of writing crime fiction and a way of looking at American life that changed everything that came after. At least it did for me, anyway.

I know that the writing was so sharply stylized that it lends itself to easy parody, but how can you argue with sentences like these:

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

“The girl gave him a look that ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.”

“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

And, of course, there is the wonderful opening paragraph of the short story Red Wind:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

And who was wiser about writing good genre fiction than Chandler in this quote from the introduction to the short story collection Trouble Is My Business:

“The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.”

In my writing, I gradually came around to the same conclusion that a good plot was one that made good scenes, but wish I’d read that passage sooner. It might have saved me some false starts.

Chandler was a master of good scenes (which admittedly did not always add up to thoroughly coherent plots), heightened by that inimitable style. As Chandler said, “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.” And Chandler is as durable as they come.

I’m proposing the Chandler holiday in honor of the work, not the man, who by all accounts was a pretty difficult individual. If you’d like proof that sublime art can be produced by collaborators who hate each others guts, read the sections of Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets devoted to Chandler’s working relationship with Billy Wilder on the screenplay of Double Indemnity. At one point in the writing, Chandler stalked out of the room, off the Paramount lot, and went home. Shortly after, he declared that he wanted off the project. Chandler was only convinced to return after a kind of settlement agreement was struck involving a list of grievances against Wilder that Chandler had been scribbling on a yellow legal pad throughout the writing process.

John Houseman, then a producer at Paramount, said the settlement went into considerable detail: “Mr. Wilder was at no time to swish under Mr. Chandler’s nose or to point in his direction the thin, leather-handled malacca cane which Mr. Wilder was in the habit of waving around while they worked.” Wilder remembered that one of the demands was, “I can’t work with a man who wears a hat in the office. I feel he is about to leave momentarily.”

So on July 23, when those wicked Santa Ana's are blowing, remember the great Chandler. And when you celebrate, have a whiskey because, as the man himself once observed, there are no bad whiskeys, only some that aren’t as good as others. Happy holidays.

Do you have a favorite Chandlerism?


Meredith Cole said...

Ray Day! I like it. My favorite Chandlerism is apparently when they were making The Big Sleep into a movie, they called to ask him for a plot clarification, and the answer he gave confused them even more... The film and book are definitely not "whodunnits."

Reece said...

Hi Meredith! Chandler did so many things well that it was easy to forgive the occasional loose end -- even an unaccounted for murder.

Michael Wiley said...

I think we should celebrate Ray Day everyday.

Great post, Reece.

Reece said...

Thanks, Michael! I'm with you on that. And we could always double down and make it Double Ray Day for Chandler and Bradbury (another of my favorites)!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Ah, the Rays. I like the idea of double Ray Day. And everyone who celebrates gets a Ray gun that can turn their prose into Chandler/Bradbury for a day.

Happy Holiday!

Reece said...

Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca. You are a Ray of sunshine. Happy Holidays!