‘I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.’*
This is Philip Marlowe in the raw, stripped of his wisecracks and telling it like it is. Bleak, sharp and cynical, it tells you almost everything you need to know about the private detective and his world.
Raymond Chandler is one of the great stylists. As good as, if not better than, PG Wodehouse, who also created an equally extraordinary world or way of viewing the world in Bertie Wooster (and who shared with Chandler the Alma Mater of Dulwich College).
You don't read Chandler or Wodehouse for the stories. What happens, and to who, is not why we're reading. The plot is not really the point, whether it might be good, bad or indifferent. Like Shakespeare the plot might be borrowed or secondhand or become secondary to the author's real concern (or, in Chandler's case, made up as he went along). What matters to these writers is the telling of the story.
This is what separates the truly great writers from the mere scribblers.
A few months ago I had a brief discussion with a science-fiction editor-cum-writer over at his blog. He was saying that he'd been told by his agent to alter the style of the story he was working on as big publishers weren't buying that kind of thing: it simply wouldn't sell. He did as his agent advised and they made the sale to one of the majors. I wanted to know what he'd been told to change, which he found difficult to answer, but this led to a discussion of whether readability or a good story was at the heart of these things. He concluded by saying that telling a good story was ultimately what mattered in getting published.
Perhaps this is the case with genre publishing. If so, then it's a shame. Because that suggests the telling of the story - the author's voice - has become a secondary concern. It's the voice that transports us into the author's world, not the story - which is what happens (or 'a narrative of incidents' according to my Chambers). Chandler made his novels up as he went along, famously claiming that when he didn't know what to write next, he'd have someone walk in holding a gun. (Which perhaps explains why there is a murder that goes unaccounted for in The Big Sleep.) The effort went into the words, into bringing Marlowe and his Hollywood neighbourhood alive. This might explain why Marlowe is a more human character than, say, James Bond (who Fleming once described as a blunt instrument) and Sherlock Holmes, who looks at humanity like a scientist might a freakish bug in a petri dish. Marlowe is a man, he has failings. But those failings come out of his strengths: his wits and his morals.
Trouble Is My Business is released on July 31st. This, at last, completes Penguin's reissue of the Philip Marlowe stories (excluding the tantalizingly titled 'Philip Marlowe's Last Case', which I've never read). Eight books to match the eight books featuring the other greatest private detective in the world recently released by Penguin.
If you like crime fiction you should read Chandler. If you like fine writing and sneer at genre fiction then read him and learn to revise your opinion.
And if you still think the story is more important than how it is told, then this might just be the book for you.
* I can't for the life of me remember which title this comes from since I scribbled this piece down to go on the page one of these eight editions (great Saul Bass-influenced covers by former Penguin designer Steve Marking) about three years ago.