Happy Birthday, Raymond Chandler

Today, July 23, is Raymond Chandler’s birthday. If he were alive, he’d be 133. Still, he lives on, not only in his own massive oeuvre but also in the novels and short stories of other crime writers who, once they’d read Chandler, were never the same.

No one questions the magnitude of Chandler’s influence. As writer and filmmaker Jonathan Crow put it,  Chandler “sandblasted the detective novel of its decorousness and instilled it with a sweaty vitality.”  

Chandler began during what is called the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” with its focus on plots and puzzles and its fascination with things like tides tables, railway schedules, and the time it might take to ride a bicycle in the rain from the village pub to the murder scene. While others were writing about country houses, locked rooms, and islands cut off from the mainland, Chandler wrote gritty stories about real people struggling to make sense of a morally ambiguous universe. No fluffy cardigans or tea parties for him. And no amateur gentlemen who taught Scotland Yard a thing or two.

Chandler had strong ideas about crime fiction, ideas he laid out in his Ten Commandments for writing a detective novel:

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3. It must be realistic in character, setting, and atmosphere. It must be about real people in the real world.

4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…

10. It must be honest with the reader.

Genius though he was, if we’re being honest about Chandler, we must also admit he could be harsh, opinionated, and frequently pompous. He trashed British mystery authors such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, A. A. Milne, and Dorothy L. Sayers, whom he considered a boring snob. “The English,” he once said, “may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.” Chandler scorned class distinctions and what he considered overelaborate plotting and fictional detectives of “exquisite and impossible gentility” who never take a fee but are “always available when the local gendarmerie loses its notebook.”

What he failed to acknowledge—or perhaps to realize —was that readers who love Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Chesterton might also read his own work and that of Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald with equal pleasure.

What I appreciate most about Chandler is his unmistakable voice. My all-time favorite passage is the famous opening paragraph of the short story, “Red Wind” (1938): 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.

Since every writer of crime fiction stands on the shoulders of those who came before, I’ve asked my fellow Miss Demeanors to tell us which crime writers (past or present) have influenced their writing.

KEENAN: I LOVE that passage. Chandler was the master. As much as I read and re-read him, I haven’t been able to grind any of his mojo into my head. Dame Agatha, of course, has been a big influence. My third book was constructed in an “And There Was None” plotline—as many have been.

MICHELE: I had cards printed before I was published and had no books to list. To fill space after “writer,” I used Raymond Chandler’s great advice for writers. “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun.” I followed this advice as recently as April. 

SUSAN:  Agatha Christie has been a huge influence on me, and especially Miss Marple. Jane Marple is a woman who sees the world in a particular way. She respects order. She’s shrewd. She’s content with herself. She’s part of a community and yet she’s alone. She’s often underestimated. She always wins! I loved her when I was young, and now that I’m entering Miss Marple territory—age-wise—I appreciate her even more. I also love John LeCarré. I don’t think anyone wrote a sentence as beautifully as he did, and I love the way he develops character, peeling away layer after layer after layer.

TRACEE: Ruth Ware, Tana French, Michael Connelly, and Martha Grimes are on my list (there are many others) of writers whom I am influenced by today. Let’s call them aspirational examples. Agatha Christie is on a list of a different sort—she’s the one who put me on the path to loving mysteries. That’s a lasting influence if ever there was one. 

EMILYA: For me, it’s Tana French for how she handles interiority and tension, as well as the idea that you can stay in the same universe but pivot to other characters. Neil Gaiman for language and imagination. Stephen King for language, feels, and how he decides who dies and who lives, and why it’s always the right decision. Stephenie Meyer for writing Twilight while taking care of infants, and the same for J.K. Rowling.

ALEXIA: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and all of the authors who wrote under the Carolyn Keene pen name were my biggest influences. I love traditional, classic mysteries—called cozies when I was a kid, now more commonly referred to as Golden Age. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries are the perfect blend of cozy (Wolfe) and tough guy (Archie).

I love puzzles and problem solving, and I’m one of those contrarians who insist plot matters as much as character. (A bunch of interesting characters not doing much besides talking about their existential crises is my idea of a literary cocktail party, and I’m not a fan of cocktail parties. When I was in clinical medicine, I spent my workday listening to people’s problems. The real-life emotional trauma/drama was enough. I don’t want to spend my leisure time listening to fictional characters’ issues, honestly. Get some fictional therapy, already. Or take a fictional pill.) I also love stories with vibrant settings. I could visualize myself in Wolfe’s NYC brownstone or Christie’s English villages or Nancy Drew’s River Heights. Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries offered the added bonus of teaching me about gourmet cooking and orchids.

TRACEE: I always think of Agatha Christie as part of the Golden Age, which she was, but I just checked and the first book of hers I remember reading was Elephants Can Remember. It was published in 1971, which means I read it only a few years after publication (as a grade-schooler in about 1977). I hope that doesn’t push my years back to the Golden Age but brings her into the present a tiny bit. And I completely agree with Emilya about Tana French. There’s so much to love about her writing and setting and characters, but the way she maintains links both large and small throughout her novels is wonderful.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Which writers have influenced your writing—or have helped to refine your taste in crime fiction?

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MIss Demeanors

Author Connie Berry

Connie is the USA Today and Amazon Best-Selling author of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Her debut novel, A Dream of Death, won the IPPY Gold Medal for Mystery and was a finalist for the Agatha Award and the Silver Falchion. The third in the series, The Art of Betrayal, was published in June 2021.

Besides reading and writing mysteries, Connie loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio and Wisconsin with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie.

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One thought on “Happy Birthday, Raymond Chandler

  1. Connie,

    That Chandler quote about Santa Anas was right on. We reach for the CeraVe when the Santa Anas & extremely low humidity makes skin itchy and dry as a west Texas horned toad.

    Vic

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