Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” For me, one of the biggest joys of reading is finding authors who so unerringly find the right word, the right phrase, every time. I will put up with so-so story lines or plot holes you could drive a truck through if the writer uses language well.
For my money, no one used language like Raymond Chandler did. Perhaps the ultimate pulp fiction writer, he broke into the detective novel business writing for publications like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Writing from the late 1930s until his death in the late 50s, Chandler created one of the most memorable and archetypal detective characters of all time, Philip Marlowe. Dashiell Hammett may have invented the American hardboiled detective novel, but Chandler perfected it, with classics like The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely.
For me, Hammett’s writing is almost a parody of the genre, filled with over the top tough guy talk. Chandler refined it, dialed it back. Oh, Marlowe was plenty tough. So tough that he could just be it without saying he was. Instead, as Chandler’s protagonist and narrator, he sizes up tough situations and just deals with them—with a detached sense of humor and a rock solid, if world-weary sense of right.
This whole diatribe started with me thinking of one of my favorite passages of 20th century American writing the other day. I’ll end with it. Don’t skip ahead.
Trying to find the exact quote, I came upon a treasure trove of Raymond Chandler lines and knew I had to make up an excuse to share them. These are all classic Chandler—tough, sometimes funny, sometimes smartass, never pulling any punches, always economical in conveying everything with just a few words:
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”—Farewell, My Lovely
“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” —Farewell, My Lovely
“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” —The High Window
“I felt like an amputated leg.” —“Trouble Is My Business”
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas 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.” —“Red Wind”
Chandler’s writing is filled with moments like these, passages that make you stop and reread them, savoring them before moving on. And for all his nailing Marlowe’s wisecracking, gimlet-eyed worldview, he can also deliver heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of a late evening sky over a Los Angeles street.
So the Raymond Chandler passage that beats out all others for me? It also comes from Farewell, My Lovely. Philip Marlowe is lying in bed in a cheap hotel room, waiting for it to get dark enough to try to sneak onto a boat in the harbor where some very bad people are most certainly waiting. In these few lines, Marlowe assesses not only the situation, but his life as a whole. And then he does what he has to do.