All honest readers with sense are hierarchical readers. We instinctively rank writers and books as lousy, good or excellent; essential, optional or a waste of time. There’s no serious argument about, say, Gogol or Henry James, but placing Chandler is trickier. To call him “the greatest American novelist” as at least one enthusiast has done is stupid and provincial. But to dismiss him as “merely a gifted genre writer,” as another misguided reader has done, is equally obtuse. Who wouldn’t prefer reading Chandler over Ann Beattie, Robert Coover or Joan Didion, to cite three overinflated reputations almost at random?
I almost never read crime writers, and detest Hammett and most of his imitators, but Chandler, like Ross Macdonald, I’ve been rereading for more than forty years and they stick with me. Think of the face of the corpse, “a swollen pulpy gray white mass without features,” floating to the surface in The Lady in the Lake (1943). Or the smell of scorched flesh in “Goldfish” (1936). Or Candy, Roger Wade’s houseboy in The Long Goodbye (1953), looking at his passed-out boss and saying to Marlowe: “`Pobrecito,’ he murmured as if he meant it. `Borracho como una cuba,’” and Marlowe replying: “`He may be drunk as a sow but he sure ain’t little. You take the feet.’” Chandler’s metaphors and scenes upholster my memory more thoroughly and with more accompanying pleasure than anything written by such soft-headed sentimentalists as Steinbeck or Vonnegut. In the same letter to Hamilton, Chandler writes:
“Well, all this matters nothing, except that a writer to be happy should be a good second-rater, not a starved genius like Laforgue. Not a sad lonely man like Heine, not a lunatic like Dostoevski. He should definitely not be a mystery writer with a touch of magic and a bad feeling about plots.”
Chandler was born on this date, July 23, in 1888, in Chicago, and died March 26, 1959, in La Jolla. Go here to see a clip of Chandler’s cameo in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), based on the novel by James Cain, with a screenplay by Wilder and Chandler.