Academic journal article Style

Chandler's American Style

Academic journal article Style

Chandler's American Style

Article excerpt

Often seen as an exemplar of the hard-boiled mystery novelist, Raymond Chandler frequently commented on the Americanness of his style. Though his achievements as a stylist are often acknowledged, they are often passed over swiftly en route to analyzing thematic aspects of his novels. Chandler himself, however, showed a keener interest in language than have many of his critics and commentators--then or now. Our current lack of attention to language reflects larger movements in literary theory or criticism in the last few decades but also leaves us unable to examine some of the more interesting trends in our time. Chandler's sentence style is in some respects the preferred American prose style that has survived the twentieth-century and is employed in many genres of modern American English. At stake in understanding the features of Chandler's style is our understanding not just of Chandler or shifts in American fictional style but also of how to create functionality, melody, rhythm, and euphony in fictional or nonfictional American prose today.

Born in Chicago but educated in England, Chandler later wrote of himself, "I had to learn American just like a foreign language" (RC Speaking 80). Although Chandler discussed this consciously acquired American version of English with linguistic awareness and seriousness, critics and commentators focused primarily upon "high" culture or the canon have often found it easer to look elsewhere for the most important stylistic innovations of twentieth-century American prose or those most likely to extend into the twenty-first century. The distinctness of Chandler's style, however, and the distinctly American style of the crime novel genre as opposed to the British detective novel invite the question of whether Chandler has been a particularly important practitioner of an evolving, simplified American-English prose style that we can readily find today in the catchy and streamlined language of advertising, the simplified sentence structure of writing for the internet, or the novelistic descendents of Chandler's tough guy.

Chandler himself frequently differentiated between the American hard-boiled genre and the British genre of the mystery novel with its locked-room puzzles. Some of his complaints involve the elaborate and unrealistic plotting of the British locked-room mystery, but most of his criticism involves language. Chandler felt the locked-room mystery suffered from dullness--partly because of its plot but largely because of its language. His argument is most explicit in "The Simple Art of Murder," published in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1944, where he parodies the British style and its American imitators to make his point:

   But fundamentally [in the classic detective story] it is the same
   careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible
   trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III
   with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top
   note of the "Bell Song" from Lakme in the presence of fifteen
   ill-assorted guests; the same ingenue in fur-trimmed pajamas
   screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors
   and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they
   sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other,
   while the flatfeet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with
   their derby hats on. (Simple Art 10)

Chandler writes this parodic 108-word sentence in a style he otherwise avoided: its length, the social atmosphere depicted through the heaping up of adjectives, and its clause structure are all opposites of the style in his own novels. Not only do his own choices appear conscious, but his ability to write in different styles shows his awareness of options not chosen.

Key traits of Chandler's style remain distinctive and important. Even today a savvy reader can differentiate between British tradition in mystery--with its relatively elaborate plots and slow-moving prose--as opposed to the faster-moving American tradition characterized, usually, by a less garrulous narrator, more far-reaching movements from place to place, more action, and a faster pacing. …

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