Language of Raymond Chandler
W.H. Auden considered the writings
of pulp detective writer Raymond Chandler not as escapism, but as art.
Really? On the level of Shakespeare? We'll come back to that. One of
the benefits of reading hard-boiled detective fiction like that of Raymond
Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is the entertainment value provided by
the colorful slang the writers used. A secondary benefit is using the
terms yourself in conversation and watching your listeners' faces scrunch.
Try this one:
The buttons are giving a Harlem sunset the dust and have already
checked the elbows of a jasper and tossed him in the sneezer.
The police are investigating a grisly murder and have already arrested
a guy and put him in jail.
I pasted the Bruno right in his Milwaukee goiter and then pulled my
I punched the tough guy in his beer gut and then drew my gun.
I ran through a hail of Chicago lightning to save the frail and
we both barely missed being fitted for wooden kimonos. Chicago
lightning is gunfire, a frail is a woman, and a wooden kimono is a coffin.
Don't be confused by similarities, some of which might be counter-intuitive.
A sneezer is jail, but a beezer is a nose. Glossaries do exist for this
slang, but they're not nearly as much fun as reading the stories themselves.
Not to worry; you'll figure it out from the context.
Discerning readers appreciate the use of descriptive writing. Slang
or prose, Raymond Chandler had a supreme command of language.
From Farewell, My Lovely: It was a blonde. A blonde to make
a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
In another book, the title of which I can't remember, Philip Marlowe
caught one of his hoodlum acquaintances eavesdropping and asked him,
"Riding the 'Earie,' Gaffer?" Erie was a railroad. Now that's
From Pearls Are a Nuisance: He snorted and hit me in the solar
plexus. I bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun
it. When I had it nicely spinning I gave it a full swing and hit myself
on the back of the head with the floor.
And the usual random sources:
She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.
He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.
From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away
she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.
I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and
wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.
The girl gave him a look that should have stuck at least four inches
out of his back.
S.J. Perlman had great appreciation for Chandler's style. In an interview
with Dick Cavett, he remarks on the courage it took to produce lines
like "dapper as a French count in a college play," and his
description of Marlowe sneaking into a house and closing the screen
door as though it were made of "short pie crust."
So if you want rich and lofty language, try Shakespeare. If you prefer
your prose to be a combination of gritty and funny, try Chandler. However,
when you consider all the words Shakespeare made up for lack of words
he needed, he used as much slang as Chandler.
Chew on that, ya jamook.
Jay Speyerer is a writer and speaker who gives presentations
on business communications so relentlessly that audiences simply
break down and agree to do whatever he says.