I was dubious. Not of the quality of Chandler's writings, but of the veracity of this book's claim to collect ALL of his short fiction. But it does. From Blackmailers Don't Shoot to The Pencil, with everything in between, this has them all. This also includes three that are available nowhere else: Professor Bingo's Snuff, The Bronze Door and English Summer. These last three really do not really qualify as pulpy mysteries (or even as typical Chandler, although his imprint in them is still distinct), but I had been seeking them for a while and bought the book for them alone anyway. And because, well, Chandler could write a grocery list and I'd buy it to read. He's that good.
For those who already know Chandler, that will not come as any surprise. He took up the torch which Hammett lit, toward making detective fiction respectable literature. And no one outside of Hemingway has been more influential or distinctive, in any style, anywhere, ever. And no one has ever been more entertaining. Chandler wrote in an extremely visceral, visual, atmospheric way, and made the language sit up, salute and perform pirouettes. His cynical California Gothic prose defined postwar America and combined intelligentsia with slang and squalor with romanticism into a new form that has not been exceeded. I could ramble on indefinitely, but I hope this paragraph has been some small yet clear indication of the fact that I happen to like Raymond Chandler's writing.
The three previously unpublished stories were treats, to see Chandler working in ways I was unaccustomed to. One was even subtitled 'A Gothic Romance'; that made me a little nervous, but is only a romance in the sense that The Big Sleep is a romance. All three deal with murder- one at a quaint but decaying English manor, one via a magical door to nowhere, and one by an invisible man. You read that last part correctly. Chandler delves into fantasy in these pages; and I was delighted. But for those of you passionately inclined to LA noir, don't worry: as unconventional as these stories are, they still retain most of the basic elements found in his other crime stories.
In Chandler's first Black Mask story, Blackmailers Don't Shoot, his style was present, but it was somewhat forced and imitative; he wore the attitude like a coat, keeping it a separate and distant thing. By just a couple of stories later, the attitude had become a second skin. Chandler had cemented his voice and begun to truly inhabit the world of his creations. Thereby we too are liberated, and transported, into his rich, dark, slinky and dangerous territory. By the late 30's everything was in place: atmosphere, language, attitude, et al. Raymond Chandler was combining (cannibalizing, he called it) two of the stories in this volume with new material to become his first and most famous novel, The Big Sleep. And we can all be thankful for that.
But it begins here. Some of these stories don't use the ingenious metaphors he later became renowned for, some are overly confusing, some aren't even great mysteries. (Chandler himself would tell you he was not the best plotter, giving that acclaim to Woolrich, but plots were secondary to Chandler anyway.) Still, these are all great stories, of the coolest era in history and of the last great rugged individualist. In some stories he is called Dalmas. In some Carmady. In some he is no one in particular. And yet they are all his lasting creation Marlowe under the surface, all *Chandler* himself in fact, using the crime story form to express his own philosophies of life. While never failing to blow your socks off with his skill.
For those who don't know Chandler this may not be the place to start. For that I recommend Farewell, My Lovely or The Little Sister, both among Chandler's most atmospheric and funny novels. But I do recommend starting down these mean streets which Marlowe himself prowled. You will (or should) become hooked, and may eventually wind up back at this collection anyway, where you can see the writer- and his characters- develop, and see grains of the novels his stories would become.
If you have never read Chandler before, you have a vast world newly open to you. Lucky you.
If you have read him before, welcome back. Curl up and stay awhile.
P.S. The introduction to this volume breaks no new ground. Don't get me wrong, it's OK. But this is An Historic Publishing Event, so I was expecting something a little more official and substantive. A small gripe.