Raymond Chandler's Early Poetry & Prose

Young Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler's started writing detective fiction in the 1930s, but it was not his first attempt to make a living as an author. In his early twenties, just after completing his schooling and returning from a year's study on the Continent, he made a brief attempt at a career as a London man of letters. He worked briefly as a reporter for the Daily Express, from which he was fired, then took a position on the staff of the Westminster Gazette, contributing poems, satirical sketches, and short articles on European affairs. The low pay--about three pounds a week--was hardly enough to support him. In 1911 he began contributing essays and reviews to The Academy, a London literary weekly.

Chandler's early poems, twenty-seven of which have been located, have some interesting moments, but they show that he was not destined to be a poet. The forms are fixed and rigid, usually in quatrains or sestets. Chandler had a particular fondness for repeated rhymes; his poems frequently make use of such schemes as aaaab and abab cbcb dbdb. The resulting rhymes are often awkward and simplistic. In his later detective writing, Chandler would use an objective style with a strong sense of place and careful eye for detail. The early poems have none of these qualities. The writing is abstract and distant, focusing on grand concepts such as art, love, beauty, and loss. The diction and syntax are formal and somewhat stilted, showing little of the verbal ease and crisp vernacular style that would characterize the Philip Marlowe novels.

The poems are important, though, for what they show of Chandler's temperament as a young man. The themes of loss and alienation run throughout his verse. The poems project a speaker who is at odds with an oppressive, materialistic world and wants to escape to a distant, ideal land. They show as well a strongly Romantic conception of art as the most noble human pursuit and of the poet as a suffering, tormented recorder of life. Chandler's mind, furthermore, was drawn toward chivalric images and themes: kings and knights appear repeatedly in his poems.

The sensibility behind Philip Marlowe is also present in the essays Chandler wrote for The Academy. In "The Genteel Artist" and "The Literary Fop" he rails against wealthy, dilletante painters and writers who are concerned only with poses and style, not substance and quality. Two other pieces contain the germs of ideas Chandler would develop more fully three decades later in his celebrated essay "Simple Art of Murder." In the "Remarkable Hero" he criticizes the tendency in modern literature to create bizarre, eccentric heroes, and singles out the genteel mystery in particular. The mystery reader, he writes, "is unaware that the great detective whom he so much admires is as unlike any possible great detective as he is unlike a Patagonian anteater." In "The Tropical Romance," Chandler mourns the decline of the adventure novel and "those somewhat shop-soiled heroes with tarnished morals and unflinching courage." In "The Simple Art of Murder," he would use almost identical terms in his exposition of the ideal hardboiled detective hero.

What's missing from these early essays is a concern for realism in fiction. In "Realism and Fairyland," Chandler explicitly rejects the realistic mode that had been developing since the mid-19th century. Such writers, he argues, document only the seedy side of life, blind to all but the weakness and nastiness of human beings. The purpose of art is not to kill hope and cheer but rather to provide support and inspiration; it should take the reader to "fairyland"--a realm where Romance and ideals provide succor from mundane unhappiness. The desire for Romance and escape would remain a strong part of Chandler's artistic temperament, but until he learned to integrate it with concrete, objective realism, his writing would remain only second-rate. He had artistic ambitions and attitutes but had yet to find his material.

In 1912, Chandler decided he had no future as a London writer. He borrowed five hundred pounds from his uncle and sailed to the United States. He stayed briefly in St. Louis and Omaha, then moved to Los Angeles.