Raymond Chandler didn’t write hard-boiled mysteries. He’s noir, the very pinnacle. For examples of his work see his first novel, The Big Sleep, or his best, The Long Goodbye. The movie version of The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart, will also give you a pretty clear indication of what Chandler was all about.
Noir. French for black. Noir is dark. Dark stories about dark souls doing dark things.
My books are literary noir. Chandleresque. Introspective. A lighter shade of dark.
The stories touch on dark themes. Betrayal. Our own gut-wrenching fears. Family. (Yes, family. You’ll see.) Depression.
The people in my mysteries share the same shadows we all suffer. The stories shine lights. The darkness doesn’t have to win.
They’re about people, not puzzles.
I’ll explain why.
A style so strong your name becomes an adjective: Chandleresque.
It means, clearly, “like Chandler.”
What that means is, perhaps, less obvious, unless we go with “I know it when I see it” which is, for a writer, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Because I call my mysteries Chandleresque I feel obligated to define my terms. Others have done so more completely, probably more correctly; others of greater literary stature than I.
Tough. I’m the only one here right now, so I get to make the calls.
In his introduction to Trouble is My Business, he epitomized my feelings about his style (and, I flatter myself, mine) saying, “The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.”
Most traditional mysteries would be much less satisfying without the denouement, the moment when the sleuth reveals all to the characters gathered in the drawing room. We’ve been watching for clues, trimming red herrings, keeping track of this, that, and the other thing, and seeing the devilishly clever circumstances of the crime revealed by an even more clever hero is, in the end, the main point of the mysteries our favorite authors write.
Can you imagine Poirot shrugging and admitting he hadn’t a clue? Picture Kinsey Millhone deciding it didn’t matter and going home for a peanut-butter and pickle sandwich. Inconceivable that Nero Wolfe would admit defeat—or that Archie Goodwin would tolerate it. Their bravery and problem-solving prowess is the reason we read Christie, Grafton, and Stout.
But Chandler? I don’t care whodunnit. In some cases, I don’t even know whodunnit. The famous example is the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. Nobody, not even Chandler, knows how he ended up washing in the surf inside a Packard off Lido Pier.
Because it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Marlowe becomes convinced there’s a deeper darker game than simply finding Shawn Regan. And someone is prepared to kill more than once (or more than one someone is prepared to do it) in self-interest, self-preservation.
People, Not Puzzles
The city. Los Angeles. He hated it. He loved it. As he loved and hated the people. Everyone was flawed. Marlowe was no saint. Cops were sometimes kind, sometimes nefarious. Les femmes fatales were not always fatal, were sometimes even innocent victims.
Good versus bad. Wrong or right. That’s the stuff of most crime and mystery writing.
Not Chandler. Sure, Philip Marlowe is staunchly ethical, even when he’s breaking the law. His sense of justice, of right, is unimpeachable. Marlowe’s morality, though, is a given.
We’re not here for givens. Nobody lines up at the coffee shop because they can pour a cup of joe without spilling. But if their espresso is a shot of roasted creamy heaven, word gets around.
That paradox, the sweet cream taste made from darkly bitter beans; that’s where Chandler rises to the top. His characters are real people. Sure, they have flaws. They make stupid choices. They make intentionally bad, mean, hurtful choices.
They also die for someone they love. They suffer ignominy rather than betray a confidence.
They love deeply, maniacally, redeemingly.
It’s Not the Plot, Either
And his plots. Called by one reviewer “rambling at best and incoherent at worst” they are, no argument from me, convoluted. Corkscrews jammed in a vice. Keep track of who did what with whom, and where and when, in any of his books, I dare you. I never even bother.
Because, once again, that’s not why I took this ride.
In The Long Goodbye, Terry Lennox is the poster child for redemption. Beaten down by everyone including himself, when he’s pushed past his limit, he doesn’t fold, he soars. Revives himself, reinvents himself, redeems himself. And at the same time kicks the pins from under those who hurt him most.
When I read a work of fiction and then aspire to become more like some imaginary character, any information pertaining to Colonel Mustard, the lead pipe, and the conservatory is not only meaningless, but positively superfluous.
Death is not some worthy goal. We spend our lives living in defiance of that mortal-coil off-shuffling. It’s the living we crave, not the ending of it.
A life worth living would be worth living whether or not it had an ending.
That’s Chandleresque: a mystery you’d read even if the end was missing.