New book on the many faces of crime writer Raymond Chandler
Lit REACTOR, fair use

Raymond Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett before him and Ross Macdonald after, effected a startling change in the crime novel. As Chandler put it, he took the novel away from those who commit murder with “hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish” and returned it to “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

This passage from Chandler’s essay explaining his technique in “The Simple Art of Murder” is dripping with sarcasm, contempt, and class analysis in its explanation of how the genre had been practiced by the upper-class detectives of the Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie school.

Chandler is at pains to argue that murder—and crime in general—is not done for specious reasons and in a way that creates a puzzle for the detectives or as a clever ruse, or, as is still practiced in much of the serial killer literature of today, as expression of aberrant psychology.

A new book by Ken Fuller, Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind the Mask, in its strongest moments concentrates on Chandler’s implied politics in his noir novels, in his focus on a generalized corruption in capitalist society and its particular manifestation in Southern California that with his other two compadres opened a space for crime novels to have a strong infusion of the social aspects of crime.

In Chandler’s rendering, crimes are committed for profit or out of class antipathy by those either as the way of establishing the fortune that then makes them respectable or to maintain their position on top. For my money, the best of Chandler’s L.A. novels, the most explicitly class conscious in this respect, is The High Window (sometimes called The Brasher Doubloon), which focuses most directly on great fortunes and great crimes. We’re reminded today of the Sackler Family who has paid almost no price for their role in the promoting of their drug oxycontin which led to the opioid crisis and thousands of deaths.

Fuller highlights a change in Chandler in the wake of the House Un-American Activity Committee and McCarthyite purges, in which he disavows progressive social content and dawdles for a period on “the non-communist left,” a movement and a moment that, as Fuller describes, was well funded by the CIA.

For Fuller, this turn in Chandler’s sympathies aligns both with his Eton-like elite education and professing to create “literature,” leading to his perpetual disappointment that his work was not accorded that status, and his secret homosexuality: His lead character, the hardcore private detective Philip Marlowe, was constantly projecting his anxiety around women.

Fuller has a reading of Chandler’s work, in the first half of the book, that sees his literary career as building to The Long Goodbye, for Fuller Chandler’s only real literary novel, and then suffering a precipitous decline. Here the book is on more tenuous grounds. Judging Chandler on the somewhat antiquated and elitist assumptions of whether or not his works are “literature”—which is admittedly somewhat how he judged himself—leads away from his actual literary contribution. Chandler unmoored Hammett’s often critical view of the detective as hired gun of the owner class and instead followed that other impulse in Hammett which allowed the detective, since he or she can go anywhere in search of the solution to the crime or to aid a client, to be a kind of interrogator of the class system itself, constantly and smirkingly questioning its assumptions.

This multilayered examination of a society fractured on class lines—and what manifestation of society is not more fractured than status-conscious Los Angeles?—is Chandler’s contribution to opening an entire literary genre to a wider, more encompassing view of the world.

Fuller’s way of illustrating Chandler’s literary failures, in ways that fill up too much of the book, takes the form of minutely pointing out plot inconsistencies, something which Chandler was well aware of and never overly concerned about. His famous quip about moving the story forward was along the lines of, “Whenever I am unsure what to do I have someone come into the room with a gun and start shooting.” It seems a bit of a timewaster to keep pointing out the ragged edges of Chandler’s plotting when he himself, and most readers, are not overly concerned with it, mostly because the themes and atmospherics are so strong.

The last aspect of Chandler’s work Fuller points to is how his repressed homosexuality plays out in his novels. Fuller does make a strong case in both examining the life and the novels for traces of this proclivity which Chandler may never have acted on and in that sense advances Chandler biographies. In fact, there is a whole range of criticism which sees noir, or tough-guy fiction, as driven by repressed and unfulfilled masculine relationships. The problem here though is the failure to link what may be an unconscious motivation with the main line of the novels. How does the repressed homosexuality affect Chandler’s views of society?

One of the better studies in this area, Robert Corber’s In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America, describes the way Hitchcock presents a quasi-gay relationship which is then abandoned and normalized by its lead character, who takes refuge in political office and at the same time returns to a heterosexual relationship in Strangers on a Train, a screenplay that Chandler wrote. This reading then links the eventual repression in the film in 1951 to a wider repression or othering of all kinds of positions and behavior in the wake of the HUAC hearings. Fuller though simply stops with his seeming proof of Chandler’s repressed homosexuality.

The Man Behind the Mask is worth the read for its careful examination of Chandler’s overt politics and how this played out in his novels. The book fails, however, to credit Chandler significantly for not only advancing the class consciousness displayed in his predecessor Hammett but also in laying the groundwork for an even sharper class critique practiced by his successor Ross Macdonald, who explored all the dark nooks and crannies of the loathing and disgust generated over the failure of the capitalist delusion that Southern California was a new Eden and land of unlimited promise.

Ken Fuller
Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask
Independently published, 2020.
$15.99, 290 pp.
ISBN-13: 979-8699320196


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe’s latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and the Rise of the Streaming Services. He has taught at the Sorbonne and is currently teaching in the Master’s Program at the École Supérieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the British daily Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an associate editor.

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