At its best, which is most of the time, Raymond Chandler’s wholly original and fully achieved brand of hard-boiled, wise-cracking puritan sentimentality expands our horizons and enriches our world. He assembled his stories in short bursts, typing approximately 150 triple-spaced words on cut-up sheets of yellow letter paper, and so contrived, in the course of seven novels, to write some great paragraphs. Here’s one, from The Big Sleep:
It was about ten-thirty when the little yellow-sashed Mexican orchestra got tired of playing a low-voiced prettied-up rhumba that nobody was dancing to. The gourd player rubbed his finger tips together as if they were sore and got a cigarette into his mouth almost with the same movement. The other four, with a timed simultaneous stoop, reached under their chairs for glasses from which they sipped, smacking their lips and flashing their eyes. Tequila, their manner said. It was probably mineral water. The pretence was as wasted as the music. Nobody was looking at them.
Chandler was. His powers of observation, recollection and evocation are extraordinary. The phoney house band scene has nothing at all to do with the plot, but supplies the atmosphere to support an impending torrent of sharp dialogue. It’s a brilliant vignette, and not one of its hundred words is wasted.