Raymond Chandler’s1 letters are up there with the very best, and by way of the following six excerpts it is my aim to convince you all that he deserves a spot in the Letter Writers Hall of Fame (LWHOF), an organisation which, despite not yet existing beyond the dilapidated walls of my imagination, one day will, its inductees chosen by a panel consisting of me2.
A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialog and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn't even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn't push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
Raymond Chandler | Letter to Frederick Lewis Allen, 7 May 1948 | Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler
She3 was everything you say, and more. She was the beat of my heart for thirty years. She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound. It was my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything really worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her. I planned it. I thought of it, but I never wrote it. Perhaps I couldn’t have written it.
She died hard. Her body fought a hundred lost battles, any one of which would have been enough to finish most of us. Twice I brought her home from the hospital because she hated hospitals, and had her in her own room with nurses around the clock. But she had to go back. And I suppose she never quite forgave me for that. But when at the end I closed her eyes she looked very young. Perhaps by now she realizes that I tried, and that I regarded the sacrifice of several years of a rather insignificant literary career as a small price to pay, if I could make her smile a few times more.
Raymond Chandler | Letter to Leonard Russell, 29 Dec 1954 | Letters of Note (Vol. 2)
Sometimes she4 looks at me with a rather peculiar expression (she is the only cat I know who will look you straight straight in the eye) and I have a suspicion that she is keeping a diary, because the expression seems to be saying: “Brother, you think you're pretty good most of the time, don't you? I wonder how you'd feel if I decided to publish some of the stuff I've been putting down at odd moments.” At certain times she has a trick of holding one paw up loosely and looking at it in a speculative manner. My wife thinks she is suggesting we get her a wrist watch; she doesn't need it for any practical reason—she can tell the time better than I can—but after all you gotta have some jewelry.
Raymond Chandler | Letter to Charles Morton, 19 Mar 1945 | Letters of Note: Cats
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google5 had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”
They pay brisk money for this crap?
Raymond Chandler | Letter to H. N. Swanson, 14 Mar 1953 | Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler
Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.
Raymond Chandler | Letter to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, 18 Jan 1947 | Letters of Note (Vol. 1)
Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays, and God knows what. Instead of saying, "This medium is not good," he would have used it and made it good. If some people called some his work cheap (which some of it was), he wouldn't have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, and he was too tough to shrink from anything.
Raymond Chandler | Letter to Hamish Hamilton, 22 Apr 1949 | The Raymond Chandler Papers
American detective novelist Raymond Chandler (b.1888—d.1959).
Professional letter-botherer Shaun Usher (b.1978).
Cissy Chandler, his wife of 30 years, who died on 12 December 1954.
Chandler’s cat, Taki.
‘Google’ would be founded 45 years later.