Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Collected Stories - Raymond Chandler

In the best traditions of economy, Raymond Chandler recycled his material. When he began work on his novels, he had a growing corpus of shorter works on which to draw. Scenes, ideas, characters, and themes were used again. Indeed, whole stories were woven together to create the novels. This may sound like cheating, but it is not.

If you have read all the short stories (and short is a relative term here, with each of the stories averaging close on 17,000 words), you have not read the novels. Each piece in this collection is complete in itself, a well-crafted story that satisfies on many levels. Excellent plotting balanced well against intriguing characterisation. Wonderful use of language that manages to be economical and lyrical at the same time. And always a sense of being in the presence of someone who takes the craft and the art of writing seriously.

Most of the stories are detective stories and appear in this collection in their original form. Most of the private detectives have names other than Marlowe, although he does make a few appearances. And he was, of course, the protagonist of all the novels.

Reading the whole collection sequentially is intriguing. The bulk of them pre-date the novels and there is a steady progression of sophistication over a six year period. Chandler’s ability to conjure a scene was always good, from the very beginning, but the integration of character with environment becomes more assured, as if Chandler was learning that the two are integral.

There are four forays toward the edge of Chandler’s established territory. In Pearls are a Nuisance, he seems to be trying his hand at something along the lines of Hammett’s The Thin Man. For me, it doesn’t quite work as it feels a little too self-consciously an attempt at humour. Chandler’s writing is already full of wry humour and dark wit. It doesn’t need the levity, largely because he does not seem to handle it well in this situation. Two other stories, The Bronze Door and Professor Bingo’s Snuff work much better. These tackle the mysterious rather than the mystery and are superior tales of the kind that would have been well adapted for something like The Twilight Zone.

And then there is English Summer. Subtitled ‘A Gothic Romance’, it feels like a story that would have worked better had it been set in his more familiar Bay City world. The gothic is not quite gothic enough (perhaps not having time to develop in a short story) and it feels to me overworked. There are some that have suggested it shows potential for a whole new direction for Chandler and it was an area he did express an interest in developing. But circumstance dictated otherwise. For those who believe it shows he might have written a great literary novel, I can only say, he already had. Several of them.