Today I learned that there are no public domain photographs of Raymond Chandler in existence. Zero! Seems odd for a guy who was born in the year 1888. Anyways, I love me some Chandler, especially his 1940 classic Farewell, My Lovely. It’s one of the very best crime books ever written. But he does some odd things here and there that sometimes fly in the face of commonly accepted writing advice. I previously wrote about his clever strategy for breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. Later on in the same novel, he does something highly unusual in the middle of a fight scene. Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe is investigating a lead when he falls in with some rough people and finds himself in a fistfight:
I tried to yell, for no reason at all. Breath panted in my throat and couldn’t get out. The Indian threw me sideways and got a body scissors on me as I fell. He had me in a barrel. His hands went to my neck. Sometimes I wake up in the night. I feel them there and I smell the smell of him. I feel the breath fighting and losing and the greasy fingers digging in. Then I get up and take a drink and turn the radio on. I was just about gone when the light flared on again…
Did you catch that? Chandler inserted a flash forward right in the middle of an action sequence. This is strange for two reasons. First, it breaks the flow of the action. In Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel, crime writer Hallie Ephron warns against doing that:
If you find yourself taking a pause in the middle of an action sequence to explain something, be aware that you are slowing the forward momentum… Don’t dump information into an action sequence.
So, he’s blatantly disregarded some core tenants of a fight scene. But, moreover, this flash-forward ruins the suspense. The author is telling you, right then and there, that the main character’s going to be just fine. Not only will he survive this fight, but it sounds like he’ll survive the events of the novel as well. What’s the use of putting your character in danger if the reader knows he’ll survive? Sol Stein addresses the dilemma in his essential guidebook On Writing:
A point sometimes overlooked by beginners is that if a story centers on the narrator’s ability to survive life-threatening dangers, some suspense will be lost in the first person because the character will have to survive to finish the story.
I can’t help but think that Chandler is having some fun with the confines of first-person narration here. He’s blatantly announcing to the reader “OF COURSE HE LIVES! WHAT ARE YOU, STUPID?” It’s a story told in first-person, dummy. And before you dismiss this as the over-analysis of an English professor, consider that Chandler routinely inserts meta-commentary on writing and literature into his novels, including in Farewell, My Lovely, when he takes a dig at his contemporary Ernest Hemingway. Marlowe meets a dumb brawny cop and decides to nickname him Hemingway (much to the cop’s confusion). Then they have this exchange:
“Who is this Hemingway person at all?”
“A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”
Dang, Ray. That’s savage. I don’t pretend to understand his beef with Hemingway (I think Hemingway’s pretty great!). But Chandler was a writer of enormous talent and great wit who liked having fun now and again with the conventions of literature. I can’t help feeling that’s what he’s doing here, and I love it.