Updated: May 30
The Noir Zone? I’ve borrowed the title from UK-based writer and script consultant, Phil Clarke who recently wrapped a charming compliment around an interesting question. And all in a few lines on Twitter! Here’s the question, and some of the thoughts it stirred:
"I did want to ask you how you manage to so exquisitely nail that Chandler tone. Was it just a case of having read the books when you were young or did you do anything specific before writing Shamus Dust to get into the noir gumshoe zone? Did you work on your metaphors and similes? (always of note in a noir) I’d love to know."
Now the fact is, the whole apparatus of a Chandleresque mystery felt so natural to write that I wasn’t aware of doing any preparing at all. Yet still the question nagged. It left me wondering not only why Chandleresque should feel so natural, but also how to label that Chandler tone. After all, Hardboiled just doesn’t get close, does it?
Here’s some help on that from Robert Towne, talking about his screenplay for Chinatown in a Jack Nicholson biography, Jack’s Life:
"Raymond Chandler’s descriptions of LA really knocked me out, left me with a sense of loss. His prose is so incredible. He made that time so real. There is that lyrical, lazy feel of a city with horrible things going on. "
So for now let’s call Chandler’s tone his lazy lyricism, and consider where does anybody - where did I - absorb it from? Well, like Robert Towne, I read all the Marlowe novels. First as teenage reading while I ground through Eng. Lit., and then lots more times since. Only recently, Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto’s The Annotated Big Sleep, set me off on the entire series again. By now there’s lazy lyricism in the bloodstream, I suppose. Not forgetting that it’s a European bloodstream. You see, Robert Towne read his Chandler as an Angeleno himself. And he wrote Chinatown as a detective story based in the history of his own city. Whereas, I’m not even a native speaker of American English. Luckily, there were always the movies.
Since we started on labels, Chinatown finds itself tagged as neo-noir. It deals in those themes found in classic films noirs of the 1940s and 50s; which is to say, unhinged wealth and civic corruption in the big city; murder and complicit policing; a femme fatale and a private-eye narrator who’s left to work through the maze, and to speak some truth to power along the way. If I’m a longtime enthusiast for those noir originals, it’s hardly a surprise. For that European teenager, reading Chandler’s lyricism off the page was one thing. Hearing it echo through those movies, in the contexts and settings and American cadences of the day, was quite another. Film noir decided that the shamus in Shamus Dust would have to be an American, even though the setting is London, 1947. The truth is, I simply couldn’t hear my private eye in any other voice.
So what am I saying? Start young on the Marlowe novels? Get to all the film noir festivals you can? Never miss Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley on TCM, and you’ll end up thinking and dreaming Chandleresque prose? Well, you might. As long as you remember, when you’re watching Robert Towne nail that lazy lyricism in Chinatown, there’s another facet of tone in the mix.
I mean the conventions Chandler writes in. The sensibilities of his time. Because on one hand, there are places that hardboiled mysteries of the 1940s and 50s just don’t go. And on the other, in the places they do go, they’re a reliable cheerleader for the routine prejudices of the day. Chandler is no exception; when the Marlowe novels turn to women, or to race or sexualities, they can make for some queasy twenty-first century reading. Which may well be regrettable, but the fact remains: if you plan to write a 1940s Chandleresque mystery, those sensibilities are as much a part of Chandler’s world as the hats and the highballs. Fail to observe the casual prejudices, or those places that are off-limits, and you won’t be writing the 1940s. Fail to confront them, and you’ll be left writing dead pastiche.
To see what I mean, think how Robert Towne deals with the off-limits in Chinatown - where his LA is contemporary with the LA of The Big Sleep. Yes, he’s steeped in Chandler’s prose style. But also in the sensibilities of the age. So when he explodes the time-bomb of incest that weaves through his story, he not only makes the revelation oblique, it very graphically has to get beaten out of the victim.
Put it this way; no amount of facility with Chandler’s lyricism would be convincing, if Towne didn’t also know there were things he could and couldn’t use it to say. Set your detective story circa 1940 and - if you want to stay in period - you won’t be flat-out naming and confronting incest. Get that wrong in the writing and not only will the tone not work, the costumes and art direction will be empty decoration.
Similes? Yes, they’re a Chandler and a noir thing. No, I don’t work on them. On the contrary, I think they inevitably fail when they don’t grow out of their immediate surroundings. Some of Chandler’s similes are splendid. Some others are labored, flat and forgettable. He was known to make lists of them for future use, and I suspect those are likely to be the dogs, while the splendid ones are an inspiration of the moment. Metaphor likewise. One extended metaphor in Shamus Dust is its setting in a spell of icy-hard London winter. Now admittedly, bone cold and blizzards don’t obviously chime with Chandleresque prose. Marlowe always seems so perfectly fitted to a California climate. But the best metaphors, like the best similes, spring from exigence. When you know your story well enough to trust it, you write what it demands.
This article was first published in Killer Nashville Magazine, June 2020
Phil Clarke is a professional who knows the art and the industry from the inside. His screenplays are optioned in the UK and Hollywood and his books are published worldwide. He’s a script consultant based in the UK, working with writers who’ve won or placed highly at major script competitions, on projects optioned, produced, and débuting at Cannes. Check his website where you'll find lots more about him, including some interesting interviews. He’s also on Twitter @philmscribe.
Read Phil Clarke’s review of Shamus Dust.