Fresh from the Morgue 

Raymond Chandler's classic noir novels are being reissued this year, not once but twice.

No one could write a detective story the way Raymond Chandler could, though far too many have tried. Chandler was a poet of the hard-boiled school, a then-new wave of detective fiction in which people talked more or less the way they actually talk and killed more or less the way they actually kill. That might not sound like much today, but in those days of elaborate drawing-room murder mysteries, the shift to the vernacular was as revolutionary as Vatican II. As Chandler wrote of his predecessor Dashiell Hammett in a 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay called "The Simple Art of Murder": "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish."

Following in the fresh footsteps of Hammett and a handful of other innovators, Chandler didn't invent the hard-boiled detective novel, but he pretty much perfected it. To read a Chandler story is to immerse yourself in the wordplay of a true stylist. It's not just snappy dialogue and narrative one-liners like "I felt like an amputated leg." Chandler has a way of telling you everything you need to know about a character with a few deft strokes: "He was a big man, but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck." In the ham-hands of a legion of imitators, Chandler's wry descriptions and florid similes have become a joke of the genre, but he was smart enough to get away with it. Under the guise of naturalism, he was able to whisper psalms in your ear and make you think you were listening to the news.

This year Random House is re-releasing the collected works of Raymond Chandler, not once but twice. This summer they've slapped snazzy new covers on the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard paperback editions, and in October the Everyman's Library hardcover omnibuses will hit the stands. These aren't quite Chandler's complete works. You won't find his Oscar-nominated, Edgar-winning screenplay for The Blue Dahlia here, and Killer in the Rain, the old Houghton Mifflin/Ballantine collection of eight stories later cannibalized for novel material, is missing. But what's here looks slick indeed: Vintage has designers to burn. And for those to whom such things matter deeply, these editions aren't nearly as riddled with typographical errors as, for instance, Vintage/Black Lizard's printing of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Random House's crime imprint Black Lizard, by the way, used to be a Berkeley outfit, run by the prolific novelist Barry Gifford, until Random House got hold of it.)Chandler is practically synonymous with his private eye Philip Marlowe, the archetypal hard-boiled detective. Marlowe might be a cheap detective, working for $25 a day, but he's stubborn, streetwise, and incorruptible enough to be a royal pain in the ass. He has a roving eye and a smart mouth that both tend to get him in trouble, but amid the shady back alleys of Los Angeles he's a knight in shining armor, a character universal and enduring enough to have been played on film by Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, James Garner, James Caan, and, in The Lady in the Lake, the camera itself.

Filming a movie in Marlowe-vision might not be as cockamamie an idea as it sounds, as Chandler's novels are all written from Marlowe's point of view. If you're familiar with only one of them it's likely to be his first, 1939's The Big Sleep. Chandler's in rare form here, with especially sharp dialogue and details such as orchids "with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men," as Marlowe wades through a sewer of blackmailers, gunsels, gamblers, pornographers, femmes fatales, and dead bodies at every turn.

But 1940's Farewell, My Lovely is perhaps a better introduction, and probably the best of the lot. Reading the masterful character sketch on the first two pages of an immense ex-con in search of his girl is the quickest way to become a Chandler convert. Pick it up in the bookstore and just try to put it down again.

Trouble Is My Business collects four early, shorter Marlowe stories, and the rest of the novels offer delights of their own: a rare coin and a tough old bird in The High Window (1942), missing wives and gigolos in The Lady in the Lake (1943), Hollywood starlets and wide-eyed Kansas gals in The Little Sister (1949). The order in which you read the books doesn't matter much -- except for 1958's Playback, Chandler's last novel, the final chapter of which only serves to tie up a loose end from The Long Goodbye. But it's just a few pages at the end, and skipping them wouldn't interfere too much with your enjoyment of the mystery.

The Long Goodbye (1953) is an unusually long, unusually melancholy mystery in which our hero befriends a well-bred drunk who seems to have killed his wife. But there's some great stuff in there about the daily life of a PI, a hilarious taxonomy of blondes, and interesting encounters with gangsters, shady doctors, an assortment of sultry wives, an alcoholic author, and a very rich and powerful man.

Like any other writer, Chandler kept returning to certain themes and patterns. His murders are committed in the heat of the moment, often by a woman, and the killer usually has the good grace to either commit suicide or be killed in a crime of passion. Despite his display of cynicism, Chandler is at heart a romantic, and it comes out both in the unassuming nobility of his protagonist and the tendency of bad eggs to come to bad ends.

Uniting two 1950 Houghton Mifflin/Ballantine short-story collections, The Simple Art of Murder leads with Chandler's indispensable essay of the same name that serves as a sort of manifesto for the hard-boiled detective story. The rest of the book is stocked with short stories written for the pulps and starring not Marlowe but a series of proto-Marlowes: police detectives, hotel detectives, even a foppish socialite -- all men of honor, even when they can't afford to be. (Especially when they can't afford to be, which is the only time it counts.) For Chandler such characters are a necessary anchor in a sea of iniquity. In The Simple Art of Murder's titular essay, he writes, "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor -- by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."

This last could be said not just of Marlowe but of Chandler himself -- that he's perhaps the best writer in his genre, and a good enough writer for any.


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