As a writer of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler is known for being more interested in the atmosphere he was creating than in the tale he was telling. In Chandler’s novels, the voice of his atmospheres-laced-with-a-story is Philip Marlowe, the streetwise detective-protagonist. Marlowe is a relaxed but frank narrator who weaves in wisecracks and life’s absurdities while emitting similes like people do carbon dioxide. Comparing his mysteries to those of other notable writers of his day, Raymond Chandler said:
“Very likely Agatha Christie and Rex Stout write better mysteries. But their words don’t get up and walk. Mine do.”
Chandler’s style is evident in his early short stories for pulp magazines, where some settings and characters appear briefly and only once, to serve mainly as a means of adding atmosphere. The longer narratives of his novels gave him even more freedom to focus on atmosphere and character, to emphasize scenes over structure, and to show that his detective mattered more to him than the plot.
Raymond Chandler was a master at packing a lot into even a small scene, evoking emotion through vivid dialogue and description that was filled with colorful similes and metaphors. One thing that apparently helped Chandler achieve his prose style was his habit of typing on small half-sheets of paper (holding around a dozen lines or 125-150 words), striving to create paragraphs or scenes that were freestanding units as to content and entertainment, which were then connected with other such units to form an enchanting whole.
For a typical example of one of Chandler’s small freestanding scenes or units, I’ll quote and comment on some brief excerpts from Chapter 26 of The High Window. Philip Marlowe has located the home address of a dental technician named H.R. Teager, whom he believes is somehow connected with the theft of a rare and valuable coin that belongs to his client. The Teagers live in an “upstairs flat” in a “yellow and white frame building” on “a wide dusty street.” Marlowe continues to ring their doorbell even though nobody answers because he knows that in “a neighborhood like that there is always an expert window-peeker.” As he expects, a neighboring door finally pulls open and “a small bright-eyed woman” looks out at him. “Her dark hair had been washed and waved and was an intricate mass of bobby pins.” The woman starts off talkative telling of the Teager’s sudden vacation departure, then becomes mistrustful to where Marlowe notes that the suspicion in her voice “was as thick as the ham in her radio.” Finally, she becomes preoccupied with the “heartrending dialogue of some love serial” coming from thes radio behind her and hitting Marlowe “in the face like a wet dish-towel.” When he attempts to elicit more information from the distracted woman by pretending to be a hard-nosed bill collector, she refers to the “love serial” and says with a sad smile, “That’s Beula May … She won’t go to the dance with Doctor Myers. I was scared she wouldn’t.” Marlowe says, “Aw hell,” and drives home to Hollywood.
Agatha Christie and Rex Stout may have written better mysteries, but their words don’t get up and walk like Chandler’s do.