In an age of extreme individualism complicated by racial sensitivity and class resentment, ancestry is an uncomfortable subject. But it remains a fact that a man’s ancestors are never irrelevant to who and what he is, though of course they determine neither.
Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) said that he was conceived here in Laramie, before being delivered in Chicago following the usual interval of nine months. His American father deserted the family and his Anglo-Irish mother took her son to England, to be educated at Dulwich College.
After graduation, Chandler failed in a literary career in London, fought in France with the Canadian army during the Great War, and ended up back in America, where he worked as an executive for an oil company in Los Angeles. A too-fond relationship with John Barleycorn got him fired in 1932, and he began a new career writing stories for the detective magazine Black Mask. These led to his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), and from there to his best work, including Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953), all written in first-person narrative by Los Angeles P.I. Philip Marlowe.
Ross MacDonald, Chandler’s partner in fictive crime, said he ‘wrote like a slumming angel’, but neglected to add that the angel was determinedly American. ‘I had to learn American,’ Chandler explained, ‘just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself.’ So he studied and got the job done. No writer, including Mark Twain, ever captured the American language of his era more accurately and convincingly than Chandler did, having learned all about it.
But language was not all Chandler knew about America. Almost none of it is flattering, and a good deal is unpleasant. That American readers appear not to have been offended suggests that they are more honestly self-aware at a deeper, perhaps unconscious, level than they know or are given credit for by critics both native and foreign. Chandler’s California is a cultural desert stretching along the western edge of a continental wasteland. ‘No doubt,’ he presciently wrote to a friend, ‘in years, or centuries to come, this will be the center of civilization, if there is any left, but the melting-pot stage bores me horribly. I like people with manners, grace, some social intuition, an education slightly above the Reader’s Digest fan, people whose pride of living does not express itself in their kitchen gadgets and their automobiles.’
And beyond the social and intellectual thinness, Chandler perceived something more sinister: ‘The bitter fact is that outside of two or three technical professions which require long years of preparation, there is absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself, without accepting the cold, clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket.’
Chandler’s view of American culture, which in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties was steadily becoming the culture of modernity everywhere, shows through the grain of all his books. It is developed most plainly and relentlessly in The Long Goodbye, a novel unsparing of the idle, self-indulgent and corrupt rich, of local government and the politicians who run it, and of the gangsters who prey upon and exploit everyone and everything within their reach.
‘Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom,’ Marlowe tells the police lieutenant Bernie Ohls. ‘We’re a big, rough, rich, wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We’ll have it with us a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.’ When Ohls asks what the clean side is, Marlowe replies, ‘I never saw it.’
More directly still, Chandler commented in another letter about watching a group of ‘the big boys’ stroll across the Paramount lot after lunch in the executive dining room. ‘It brought home to me in a flash the strange psychological and spiritual kinship between the operations of big money business and the rackets. Same faces, same expressions, same manners. Same way of dressing and same exaggerated leisure of movement.’
In a Chandler novel, corrupt local and municipal government is a constant theme. Yet national politics are hardly referenced at all. ‘P. Marlowe doesn’t give a damn who is president; neither do I, because I know he will be a politician,’ Chandler explained. Another, equally plausible reason is that stories about Bay City, California offered little opportunity for their author to comment about or dramatize events centered upon Washington, DC. Indeed, the only mention of the subject that I have come across occurs in a letter to a critic of detective fiction, James Sandoe, in which Chandler is discussing the Hollywood screenwriters’ legal defense strategy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of 1949: ‘You say it is forthright. What’s forthright about it? It strikes me as a singularly incompetent attempt…to use the legalistic weakness of the democratic system in order to undermine or sabotage the functioning of that system.’
Raymond Chandler’s America remains recognizable, even familiar, in 2020, in nearly all ways but one: the extent to which American government has advanced from a political-financial racket to an ideological-financial one. The HUAC hearings were the earliest sign of a shift that lapsed into abeyance between Sen. McCarthy’s hearings in the early Fifties, and the mid-Sixties when it returned — for good, it seems — with the civil-rights movement merging with the Marxist, student one. Chandler did not live to see this historic development that neither he nor P. Marlowe would have failed to recognize as the new American racket that it was then — and still is 60 years on.
The earlier system of organized crime and cheap graft that intrudes into the novels has been superseded by an equally organized political and semi-criminal system, grounded in the revolutionary ideology of ‘the Resistance’ that has been waging war against Donald Trump during the three years since the President’s election. Chandler’s two-bit crooks and shakedown artists, operators like Mendy Menendez of Bay City and Randy Starr of Las Vegas, have been replaced by self-righteous liars and legal and political manipulators, typified by James Comey and Adam Schiff, who dominate the news 24 hours a day.
Raymond Chandler was a bit of a prophet, in his way. One wonders whether he saw this coming.