Raymond Chandler was not the most prolific of writers. He only started publishing in his forties, after losing a job in the oil industry thanks to the perils of being an artist, which are eerily similar to being a drunk.
He remains, however, one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th Century. The iconic private detective Phillip Marlowe was his creation; anytime you see a private detective in a trench coat, talking about ‘dames,’ and drinking, you’re looking at the cultural contribution of Mr. Chandler.
His taste in food, much like his writing, were simple and direct. ‘Cooked well and fast’ were his prerogatives. Every scrap of his writing reads that way, spiced with the acerbic wit that made Marlowe famous.
In one of his better moments, he wrote notes for a hypothetical cookbook entitled “Cookbook for Idiots.” Chapters included: “HOW TO BROIL A STEAK – DON’T,” “HOW TO MAKE COFFEE THAT DOESN’T TASTE LIKE COLORED WATER,” and my personal favorite, “DISHES THAT TAKE ALL DAY AND THE HELL WITH THEM.”
When you read his novels, his disgust for pomp and sham shows through in the same way. He likes things honest. He likes them straightforward. That’s how he made his hero. But the best explanations of that, where that really shows through, is in his essays.
Like George Orwell, Chandler was an essayist as well as a novelist, and his novels overshadow that part of his work. That’s a shame, because he wrote one essay that I keep coming back to over and over again. It‘s called The Simple Art of Murder.
This essay, on the surface, is about detective fiction. Chandler is picking apart the genteel detective story of the British mold, and the Americans that ape that style.
Dorothy Sayers, one of the most successful crime writers of the time, had written a piece that said detective fiction could never ascend to the great heights of other, more important literature, because it could not be about what important literature is about. It was, as she put it “a literature of escape, not a literature of expression.”
This is where Chandler fleshes out his critical approach to all stories, not just detective fiction. He points out, rightly, that all literature is a literature of escape, in that the writing is trying to transport ourselves, mentally, to a different place. It’s true whether we’re reading anything, from astronomy to gastronomy, classic literature to sparkling vampires.
But what about the things that people think are great art? What about our great literature? Should we just do away with it, never even look, and just read what we like? I found a fine answer to that question in a library booze class, if you can believe that.
Our teacher was Tory O’Haire, a restaurateur and chef here in Grand Rapids. He founded both Propaganda Doughnuts and The Bandit Queen, a ramen noodle shop. His food is fantastic; he even managed to produce a doughnut that tastes like a creamsicle.
I’ll let that sink in.
For a few years now, Tory has taught a series of classes on bar culture and alcohol. The first one I went to was a class on scotch. It was absolutely fascinating to me, because Tory has a rare gift. In addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of booze and food, he has his ability to teach that knowledge in a way that hooks you.
Now if there was every a person who could get away with snobbery, it would be Tory. But his attitude towards booze was this:
“If you like it, it’s good. Try what people are telling you is good, so you know what it’s like, but if you know what, say, Gray Goose tastes like, and you like Stoli just as well, that’s ok.”
I love that attitude, because I think that was what Chandler’s argument with literature, taken a step further: don’t ignore what people tell you is good, try to engage it as best you can. But judge on its own merits; don’t read and extol it because some critic tells you it’s good. If you find yourself going back to 50 Shades of Gray or Twilight, there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, the high-brow stuff that’s critically acclaimed might just be so because of marketing. It happens all the time.
In a life, we can only read so much. Push your boundaries, but read what you like.
I don’t know if Raymond Chandler would drink to that. But I’d like to think he would. If anything, he’d accept the drink, and crack an unforgettable line, which would be enough for a guy like me.