The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1944)

If you prodded me in the chest and said, ‘Off the top of your balding head, name a writer that makes you frisky when it comes to style.’

I’d say, ‘Trick of the light. Chandler.’

The magical thing about Chandler’s style is you can’t really unpick how he does it. Gotta keep trying, though.

There are some obvious touches like word economy and timing, but you still can’t explain how that rabbit – or the smile on your face – came to be there.

I think I might’ve wised up to a couple of wee wows, though. So turn up your collar, glance over your shoulder, and lean in…

But first. If you haven’t gone any way with Ray, no sweat. It’s all smouldering dames and square-jawed gangstas with mild-mannered Marlowe the private dick muddling along among ’em.

What’s so good is he’s so human. And he’s vulnerable to those same dames. And to being whapped with a sap here and there. Usually on the back of his head when he’s least expecting it. Know the feeling. Reminds me of the black market hooch in Zanzibar.

Wow one – The Chandler Feint

Well I call it that, anyway. Chandler does it so quickly and smoothly, sending you the wrong way.

I waited in the dark, with the flash in my hand. A deadly long two minutes crept by. I spent some of the time breathing, but not all.

Bet you were thinking about breathing in the dark and those two minutes, huh? But not the ‘but not all’.

Here’s another.

You are backed up against the last wall there is now. You are all out of space, and you are all out of living.

Gah, he got me there too. Was wandering off happily thinking about walls and backs and there not being a lot of room around here and pow, my ticket’s being punched. Just didn’t see the ‘all out of living’ coming.

Oh, and clock that the passive (‘…are backed up’) works well here to emphasise the hopelessness of his situation. And the neat beat of wall-all-all. And how the repeating ‘you are all out of’ makes it more adamant.

Wow two – The Chandler Contrast

Chandler loves mushing up hard-soft, big-small and light-dark in his contrasts. Here we go.

He was about six feet two and not much of it soft. His eyes were stone grey with flecks of cold light in them.

He’s big, he’s hard, he’s not soft, he’s cruel. And notice that other little Chandlerier that snuck in there? He likes to say what things aren’t as part of a contrast (‘not much of it soft’). Let’s call that The Chandler Ain’t.

Ok, one more.

A single bright star glowed low in the north-east above the ridge of the mountains. A robin sat on the spike top of a hundred-foot pine and waited for it to be dark enough for him to sing his good night song.

I don’t need to explain what’s going on in there, do I?

Because you’ll know already and besides, I want to get to the dame. Lots of Chandler contrasts and a simmering feint at the end here.

[Describing the ‘tall, lean light-haired lovely’, Miss Adrienne Fromsett]

She wore a steel-grey business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of a lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread. She wore a linked bracelet and no other jewellery. Her light hair was parted and fell in loose but not unstudied waves. She had smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and in the right place.

And she’s on the first page of this story. Start as you mean to go on, why doncha, Ray.

I’m off to look up Fromsett in the phone book.

Thanks for being here.

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Guy Nicholls

Freelance copywriter – writing compelling copy to sell, explain or entertain.

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