Considering Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler, c. 1945

Let me muse for a moment on Raymond Chandler, someone I often turn to when I’m hungry for something beautiful. I go to him to settle myself in an atmosphere of balance, rhythm, and tone. His prose is vernacular, the purest American language I know, but it is shaped in the graceful classical style he learned reading Latin as an English schoolboy. Ann Patchett calls his writing “flat-out gorgeous.”

Consider the quick, panned-in moment when Philip Marlowe first encounters Anne Riordan in Farewell My Lovely:

I put the light on her face and she blinked.  It was a small neat vibrant face with large eyes.  A face with bone under the skin, fine drawn like a Cremona violin. A very nice face. 

The moment is electric, and cinematic like most of Chandler’s prose. “Blinked” is the critical word. Like the click of a camera, it freeze-frames Miss Riordan’s face, locking her eyes on Marlowe as he tries not to fall in love with her.

The violin is a characteristic Chandler simile, a good one, but it is not facile wordplay.  The violin vibrates with the taut strength of Miss Riordan’s face, alive in the delicacy of curved bone beneath it. It suggests a face, and an underlying mind, that is airy and resonant with life, and sings like a violin.

And it’s not just any violin. It is a Cremona violin, an elegant 16th century artefact, probably a Stradivarius, whose wood and varnish sang Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Gluck to the Medici and to the supplicants at St. Mark’s–  a classical perfection of tone from the old masters which is treasured and sought-after today. That’s Anne Riordan’s face.

Even more exciting is “fine drawn,” which extends the simile’s reach into the tight, astringent drawing of a bow across a violin’s strings, vibrant with life and beauty– or, in Marlowe’s world,  a knife across the throat.

The scene momentarily stuns Marlowe, as surely as it does Riordan, and it fires Marlowe’s innate Romanticism.

But then, with a cinematic caesura, Marlowe steps back, and adds a wry qualification, “A very nice face.” That’s the conflicted Marlowe to the core.

Raymond Chandler, c. 1945



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