I Hear Voices

Quotations from the Work of Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler brought one of the most singular and influential voices not just to crime fiction, but arguably to American literature itself.

Chandler may have come out of the crime pulps of the thirties, but what he created was literature of the finest kind. He imbued what was so often perceived (usually correctly) as disposable trash (anyone who doubts this should try reading an actual pulp magazine from cover to cover, instead of a cherry picked anthology) with a sense of poetry, hard-boiled wit, world-weary skepticism and bruised romanticism that we’re still hearing echoes of today.

And I can assure you it was no accident. Chandler took writing, his own and everybody else’s, every bit as seriously as any writer who has ever lived. He may have often dismissed himself as a hack or even a whore, but his writings and correspondence on writing itself are worthy reading for anyone wishing to assault the citadel.

“The most durable thing in writing is style,” he once wrote, “and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.”

Style? Chandler had loads of it. And it was far more than just cute similes or the endless wise-cracks that seemingly every hack working in the genre struggles to imitate — Chandler created a tone and an attitude that have become as much a part of the genre as the office bottle or the femme fatale. This is how The Big Sleep, his first novel, begins, with Philip Marlowe, his private eye hero, calling on a potential client.

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

And it ended, several murders and a fall from grace later, with these words:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill. You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”

In between, Chandler created a new American language, a language of rude wit and raucous laughter, an attitude and a code, a language we’re still speaking today. He helped put the words in Bogart’s mouth, and he spread it even further. When Bruce Willis cracks wise in Die Hard; when Tony Soprano stands cold and hard-eyed as he orders a hit on a former friend; when Gus calmly adjusts his tie after being blown to bits in Breaking Bad, not realizing he’s already dead; when some femme fatale snarls out in some neo-noir “You’re pretty stupid — I like that in a man”… you’re hearing Chandler.

  • “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”
    — The Long Goodbye
  • “This is a gun, buddy. It goes boom-boom, and guys fall down.”
    “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”
  • “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like ’em myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
  • “Her face looked like a catcher’s mitt after a tough season.”
    — Try the Girl
  • “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “I used to like this town. A long time ago…. (It) was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful.”
    Philip Marlowe
  • “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.”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.”
    Philip Marlowe in The High Window
  • “… the robe she was wearing came open and underneath it she was as naked as September Morn but a darn sight less coy.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
  • “The streets were dark with something more than night.”
    — “The Simple Art of Murder”
  • “I felt like an amputated leg.”
    John Dalmas (a predecessor to Marlowe) in “Trouble is My Business”
  • “The white moonlight was cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find.”
    Philip Marlowe in The High Window
  • “He had a face like a collapsed lung.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
  • “His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish.”
    from “The Man Who Liked Dogs”
  • “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive. If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive”
    Philip Marlowe in Playback, in response to the question, “How can a hard man be so gentle?”
  • “I put the duster away folded with the dust in it, leaned back and just sat, not smoking, not even thinking.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Little Sister
  • “Okay, Marlowe” I said to myself “you’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now lets see you try something really tough like putting your trousers on.”
    Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in Murder My Sweet
  • “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
  • “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “For two people in a hundred [marriage] is wonderful. The rest just work at it. After twenty years all the guy has left is a work bench in the garage.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
  • “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe-buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a folded umbrella. She said: “I need a man.”
    opening of “Trouble is My Business”
    “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way–but not as far as Velma had gone”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. I sneaked over to the side entrance and pressed a bell and somewhere a set of chimes made a deep mellow sound like church bells. A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day.”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “She’s a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud… ”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “The General spoke… slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
  • “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: “Philip Marlowe . . . Investigations.” It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Little Sister (opening)
  • “The corridor which led to it had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil… and the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives”
    Philip Marlowe in The Little Sister
  • “To say she had a face that would stopped a clock would have been to insult her. It would have stopped a runaway horse.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Little Sister
  • “She had eyes that could count the money in your hip wallet.”
    Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
  • “You better go lay down somewhere, buddy. If I’m any judge of color, you’re goin’ to shoot your cookies.”
    — Bernie Ohls, the D.A.’s man, consoles a cabbie who’s just shot two men, in “Finger Man”
  • “The voice got as cool as a cafeteria dinner.”
    Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely
  • “The kid’s face had as much expression as a cut of round steak and was about the same color.”
    — “Red Wind”
  • “The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.”
    — The Lady in the Lake (opening)
  • “The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.”
    — “Trouble Is My Business” (1939)

And finally…

  • “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

That’s the oft-quoted opening to Chandler’s 1938 short story, “Red Wind,” originally published in Dime Detective. This is the piece that everyone from English high school teachers and creative writing professors to Lou Grant lecturing to Mary on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show uses as an example of good writing.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is voice. That, ladies and gentlemen, is writing…

Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Loosely adapted (and greatly expanded) from a reading at The Literary Jam Thang held at Butler’s Coffee, January 27, 2012, in Palmdale, California.

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