He’s one of the greatest private detective fiction writers of all time, as famous for his gritty descriptions of Depression-era Los Angeles as he is for his lyric interplay of hard-boiled criminal investigation with literary imagery. Whether you’re a mystery writer looking to add an authentic pulp fiction vibe to your next story, or just want to learn to craft a creative simile, one of the best authors to turn to is Raymond Chandler.
Who is Raymond Chandler?
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. When he was 7, his parents split up. From age 8 to 23, he lived “in genteel poverty” in London with his mother and grandmother. After bumming around Paris and Munich in lieu of going to college (he’d been classically educated at Dulwich College, a prestigious boarding school), he went to work for the British civil service and started publishing poetry and newspaper articles.
He moved back to the U.S. in 1912, settling in Los Angeles with his mother the following year. After a stint in WWI (though an American by birth who had lived most of his life in Great Britain, he served with the Canadian army), he returned to L.A., got married, and began to develop a successful career as an accountant in the oil industry as well as a serious drinking problem.
In 1932, he was fired for his increasingly disruptive drunken antics and decided to embark upon a career as a pulp fiction writer, focusing on detective stories. The following year, when Chandler was 45, he published his first short story in Black Mask magazine.
In the 1930s, the average pulp writer had to produce approximately one million words a year in order to earn a living. Chandler’s first effort, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” took him five months to write and earned him the equivalent of $3,500 in today’s dollars. By 1938, after six years of working as a professional writer, he earned what would be just $23,000 a year in today’s dollars, in part due to his unprolific writing habits. Though he went on to publish numerous short stories, seven novels and five screenplays, his output remained low compared with his peers.
After a suicide attempt following the death of his wife, Chandler’s drinking increased. He died in 1959 at age 70 in La Jolla, California.
How to write like Raymond Chandler
As The Black-Eyed Blonde author John Banville noted, “It is easy to forget, at this remove, what a revolution Chandler wrought by turning pulp fiction into literature. He was not just a superb crime writer, he was a superb writer who happened to write crime novels.”
If you want to write like one of the 20th-century’s greatest detective story authors, you’ll need to do more than toss in a few similes and some cocky one-liners. These five tips will help you put Chandler’s unique spin on your whodunit.
1. Tough talk and erudite insight
Raymond Chandler’s writing was heavily influenced by his British upbringing, his classical education, and his early attempt at making a career as a poet and literary journalist. It was also shaped by the lingua franca of the streets of Los Angeles and the spare style of fellow hard-boiled detective writers like Dashiell Hammett.
If you listen to recordings of Chandler, you’ll hear that, despite his childhood in London, his accent is American, not British.
Even so, Chandler later wrote, “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular, largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. I had to learn American just like a foreign language. … If I hadn’t grown up with Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well where to draw the very subtle line between what I call the vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style.”
Chandler’s poetic, high-brow literary chops are interlaced with low-brow slang, crime jargon, and Depression-era wisecracks to create a text in which sophisticated cultural references appear like colorful flowers rising above broken bottles and cigarette butts in an empty lot.
“I felt fine. I felt like singing the Prologue to Pagliacci. Yes, she was a nice girl. … She was swell. I used some more of her Scotch.” – “Trouble is my Business” (1939)
Booze, slang, and an aria from a late 19th-century opera. As you write your action-packed crime thriller, give your streetwise private detective, world-weary cops, and sleazy hoods a little unexpected refinement.
2. So many similes
One of the most easily imitated aspects of Chandler’s style is his frequent use of simile. A simile is a figure of speech that compares two different things to evoke a distinct image in the reader’s mind courtesy of either the contrast or the unexpected similarity between them.
Chandler loaded his stories with similes:
“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” – The Long Goodbye
“The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” – The Big Sleep
“A few locks of dry, white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” – The Big Sleep
“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” – Farewell, My Lovely
To give your writing the feeling of a Chandler story, add some similes. But be careful; too many, or too much linguistic whimsy, will instantly transform your story from serious into satire.
3. An extreme eye for detail
According to Chandler, readers didn’t want non-stop action. They wanted to feel something. “The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.”
It was through detailed description of the clothing, bodies, mannerisms, and voices of his characters, as well as a thorough account of the furniture, architectural style and decor of the rooms they occupied, that Chandler captured what Owen Hill, editor of The Annotated Big Sleep, called “that lonely, slightly squalid ‘noir’ feeling.”
To demonstrate the level of detail you’re going for, let’s look at an early version of a scene Chandler wrote and compare it with his later revision. In both cases, the hero sets out over a pedestrian bridge leading to a house located on a steep hill.
I walked up. It was a fine evening and there was still some sparkle on the water when I started. It had all gone when I reached the top. I sat down on the top step and rubbed my leg muscles and waited for my pulse to come down into the low hundreds. After that I shook my shirt loose from my back and went along to the house, which was the only one in the foreground.
Chandler expanded the scene to add carefully chosen imagery, such as the number of steps up the bridge, drifting sand that gets everywhere, the feeling of the cold handrail, a symbolic seagull sighting, and, of course, one of his beloved similes. The result:
I walked back through the arch and started up the steps. It was a nice walk if you liked grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly. When I reached the top the sparkle had gone from the water and a seagull with a broken trailing leg was twisting against the offsea breeze. I sat down on the damp cold top step and shook the sand out of my shoes and waited for my pulse to come down into the low hundreds. When I was breathing more or less normally again I shook my shirt loose from my back and went along to the lighted house which was the only one within yelling distance of the steps.
One of the simplest ways to add detail to your writing is to do exactly what Chandler did: write a basic text, then keep injecting more and more descriptive language until your reader can see, feel, smell, and taste everything your protagonist is experiencing.
4. Plot? What plot?
The plots of Raymond Chandler’s stories are notoriously thin. There’s a famous anecdote about the filming of The Big Sleep, which includes an unexplained murder. When asked who killed the victim, Chandler purportedly told the director that he had no idea.
In large part, this lack of concern with the plot was a reaction to the intricate and ingenious detective stories by British mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy L. Sayers, which Chandler loathed. As Jonathan Crow explained, “Instead of creating self-contained locked room mysteries, Chandler created stories that looked outward, struggling to make sense of a morally ambiguous world.”
In Chandler’s fiction, plot takes a backseat to the characters and the overall mood of the story. He once told an interviewer, “It seems to me that the real mystery is not who killed Sir John in his study, but what the situation really was, what the people were after, what sort of people they were.”
To that end, he followed a movie-inspired approach to story-building promoted by Black Mask magazine. As he explained, “The technical basis of the ‘Black Mask’ type of story [was] that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read even if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers.”
After his short stories were published, he often re-used them in his novels. Most of his novels, in fact, were created using a technique known as “fix-up,” in which an author selects a few short stories, does a little rewriting, and mashes them together into a single storyline. The Big Sleep, for example, is composed of the stories “Killer in the Rain” and “The Curtain.” Farewell, My Lovely is pieced together from “Try the Girl,” “Mandarin’s Jade,” and “The Man Who Liked Dogs.”
To write a Chandler-style short story, create a few vivid scenes that are connected by the constant forward motion of the protagonist as he seeks to unravel a very basic whodunit. If you’re gunning to write a full novel, write a few short stories and combine them into a classic Chandler fix-up.
Also, make sure you write in the first person. Your protagonist is both the hero and the narrator. Which brings us to …
5. Your hero’s name is Philip Marlowe
His stories drip with irony and cynicism. His tough guys talk big but are self-deprecating. And the most ironic, cynical, and self-deprecating of all his tough guys is Philip Marlowe.
Chandler created an iconic — perhaps the iconic — private detective in his frequent protagonist, Philip Marlowe. Even when his stories starred a different private eye, like John Dalmas, the character is usually virtually identical to Marlowe in every way, and was often rewritten as Marlowe in later fix-up novels.
“Marlowe is crime fiction’s quintessential hard-boiled hero, yet one of his most interesting and appealing characteristics is his vulnerability. He can get over a physical beating taken in the line of duty, but the damage inflicted on his soul is irreparable,” writes John Banville, author of The Black-Eyed Blonde. “He is also the quintessential loner. He lives in anonymous rented accommodation, and seems to have no possessions other than a coffee pot, a chess set and a nondescript car. He has no family, no friends that we know of, and the women he falls for are lethal.”
Now it’s your turn! Check out this short story written in the style of Raymond Chandler, “Raymond Chandler tries Japanese candy … or cookies,” then write one of your own. And be sure to send a link to @katherineluck on Twitter so I can check it out.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.