Sunday, August 19, 2012

Revisiting Chandler's Mean Streets

My column for the Sunday Guardian.

According to a recent report, John Banville will be picking up Raymond Chandler’s mantle to write another Philip Marlowe novel under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black – with the blessings of the Chandler estate. At first glance this may seem like an odd choice, despite the series of Black mystery novels that marvellously evoke a seedy, shifty Dublin of the Fifties. Consider, however: when it comes to Chandler what stays behind is not plot but style; what remains in memory are not events but atmosphere. Such prose, said one critic, “is a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry”. To recreate this mixture, Banville may just prove to be an inspired choice.

That style was supreme was something recognized by Chandler himself. To re-read The Big Sleep is to find a muddle of events featuring, among other things, pornographic rings, blackmail, absent spouses and missing corpses, but holding all of this together is Chandler’s distinctive, cool voice, with Marlowe as world-weary, incorruptible knight-errant walking down the mean streets of 1930s Los Angeles. As Chandler was to write, “In the long run, however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time…the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off”. For Chandler, it paid off in spades.

After a chequered career as poet, reviewer, teacher, accountant and oil company executive, he tried his hand at writing for pulp magazines, finding success with The Big Sleep in 1939, when he was 51.  He followed this up with other novels featuring Philip Marlowe – notably The Long Goodbye and Farewell My Lovely -- giving rise to the genre of noir thrillers that have dominated shelves since. (Though mention must also be made of Dashiell Hammett, a clear influence on Chandler and to whom he paid tribute in his essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’.) Later writers such as Ross McDonald and Elmore Leonard and movies such as Double Indemnity and Chinatown, to name only a few, all took forward the brooding atmosphere and wise-guy dialogue Chandler was known for. The influence extends further: as Pico Iyer has pointed out, those from Brazilian novelist Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza to Haruki Murakami have all, at one time or the other, fallen under the spell of Chandler’s almost affectless prose.

It’s not that the reception to Marlowe was completely uncritical. Edmund Wilson claimed to have liked Farewell My Lovely, but then added waspishly that Chandler was “a long way below Graham Greene”. Borges was more dismissive, stating, “The atmosphere in Chandler and Hammett’s stories is disagreeable”. And Martin Amis, some years ago, said that Chandler’s The Big Sleep hadn’t aged well. In this, there is some truth: to read expressions such as “if you want to pick lead out of your belly, get in my way” – to take just elements of the prose, not the setting -- is to find sections of the book amusingly irrelevant. Other Chandlerisms, however, still endure: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” is a lovely sentence for a detective novel, as is: “She gave me one of those smiles that the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”.

The Chandler estate has tried to continue his legacy before, calling upon mystery writer Robert Parker in 1989 to complete Chandler’s unfinished manuscript, Poodle Springs, followed by another Philip Marlowe novel, Perchance to Dream – both of which met with a lukewarm reception for their tepid recreation of Chandler’s prose. Something that ought to illustrate for Banville the perils of refurbishing a much-loved voice. Another trap, of course, is the descent into parody, something that the Chandler style has lent itself to over the years: look at Woody Allen’s piece, ‘The Whore of Mensa’, for example, or Jason Harrington’s ‘The Man who Repaired Laptops’ published in McSweeneys this month. If Banville, a master prose stylist, steers clear of these pitfalls, his Marlowe novel will be well worth waiting for.

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