Saturday, July 23, 2011

Happy Birthday Mr. Chandler

Today is Raymond Chandler's 123rd birthday.

Last week a friend of mine said, "You're pretty hard on L.A."

"What do you mean? I love this town. It's so fucked up."

"That," he said. "That's what I'm talking about."

I look at Chandler the same way.

And so I can say, with great respect, Raymond Chandler was an asshole.

Before he created Philip Marlowe, penned the script for Strangers On A Train, or even had his first short story, Blackmailers Don't Shoot, published in Black Mask, he was an alcoholic executive for the Dabney Oil Company in Downtown L.A. getting shitfaced every day at lunch while playing gin at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

He was fired in 1932, a year before Prohibition was repealed. The reason? Excessive drinking.

Of course, Prohibition meant fuck all out here. The City of Los Angeles was running all the rackets out of Mayor Frank Shaw's office using city bureaucracy and infrastructure to coordinate it. It did it so well, in fact, that there wasn't anything for the mobsters to do.

We didn't have organized crime, we had city government.

Kind of like today. *rimshot*

Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939 when he was 50 years old. He got his first Hollywood gig in 1943 writing the script for Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder. Just before the script was to be finished he threw a tantrum and made a bunch of stupid, whiny demands that would shame a five-year-old.

Seriously. It was shit like insisting that Wilder not wear his hat indoors, and to not ask Chandler to close the door while they were working on the script. Pissy, passive aggressive bullshit that, remarkably, was rewarded and not laughed at.

Three years later he had another hissy fit while finishing up The Blue Dahlia and for some bizarre, infantile reason, he demanded that he finish the last 22 pages of the script totally shitfaced with a secretary he could dictate to and a studio employed doctor on call to keep him loaded up on B-12 shots.

And yet.

Raymond Chandler was also a genius.

You can't watch The Blue Dahlia or read The Big Sleep or The Little Sister and not get that. He had an ear for dialog, a way with pacing and snappy one-liners that left other writers cold. He had the kind of writer's voice that swept over the inconsistencies, spackled the plot holes, kept you going at a breakneck pace and didn't let you stop to breathe.

Reading Chandler is like reading poetry. It's rhythm and flow. More to evoke mood than move plot it somehow manages to do both. He was a storyteller who could charm you with the music in his writing and you wouldn't care if he actually made sense.

I have a love / hate relationship with Chandler. I love his style and I hate his plots. They can be convoluted and confusing. But that's okay because I'm reading for the poetry, the sharp observations, the biting wit.

Here's one of my favorite openings of his. From the short story Red Wind.
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.
If you've ever been here for the Santa Anas, you know what he's talking about.

He was a marvelous fuck up.  An alcoholic genius driven by his fears and insecurities. He was high-strung and demanding, self-righteous and whiny. He acted like a child and when he was treated like one in return he couldn't handle it. 

I think if I had known him I'd have wanted to punch him.

But I'd have bought his books, anyway.

So, happy birthday, Ray.  I'll drink a gimlet for ya.


Chris said...

Hear, hear. Ray may've been a bastard, but damn if he couldn't write a sentence. The opener to "Red Wind" is everything you could ever want in fiction: a touch of wonder, a touch of mystery, a pervasive sense of possibility, and a touch of wry humor to boot. If that paragraph was the only thing he'd ever written, he'd still have a (smaller) dedicated cult.

David Cranmer said...

Terrific tribute, Steve. A flawed man but what a wonderful genius at the keyboard. Happy Birthday, Mr. Chandler.

Amber Love said...

"I think if I had known him I'd have wanted to punch him." Yep, I can relate that to many writers I have actually met in person. I had wonderful online relationships with them but meeting them person complicated each one of them. I love them and still want to punch them - or hire a gang of 30s mob thugs to do it.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Awesome. Best piece on Chandler in a long time...

Ray Banks said...

I second KBS - and I agree completely with your assessment of Chairman Ray. I've always thought of him as a stylist more than an actual writer, and, from what I've read of his letters and bios and such, a cantankerous old drama queen.

Mike Dennis said...

Well put, Stephen.

StephenD said...

Great post.

Van Hazard said...

Better late than never to your birthday toast to one of the true masters. Fully agree his plots were often more complicated than even he could keep track of, and have often wondered how much that might have had to do with his more than occasional dives into the bottle. The more we read him the more we delight and learn from him, so he must've been doing something right. Great tribute.