What’s the link between Raymond Chandler, poet laureate of noir detective fiction, and Charles Bukowski, patron saint of low-life drunks? Two that I can think of: a dead gay psychic and a book.
The book was Bukowski’s Pulp. Published in 1994, it was the last he ever wrote. The bard of the bottle was on his way out when he wrote this homage/parody to the LA detective thriller.
The works of Chandler and fellow noir master Dashiell Hammett loom large over Bukowski’s book, even as he subverts their tropes and goes looking for more philosophical mean streets to stroll down. The text eventually escapes its Chandler pastiche and meanders off into autobiography and a creeping sense of mortality.
The dead gay psychic is something else.
In 1949 Raymond Chandler wrote to a friend who worked as a literary critic. Chandler was a lonely man who drank too much and the letter was long, rambling, and indiscreet. Among the industry gossip and small talk in this one were his opinions about a new kid on the block. They weren’t positive.
At the time, Chandler was the best known detective writer in the anglophone world. This British-American mongrel had set the template for the modern private eye in fiction: a cynical, bruised-heart romantic who uses the wrong methods to do the right thing in a futile battle against a world in which corruption grows like mould.
“Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
The note perfect evocations of 1940’s Los Angeles in Chandler’s novels were the icing on the cake. He was such a towering presence in the genre that other writers had to try hard not to sound like him. Some didn’t bother. Earlier in 1949 Ross Macdonald (born Kenneth Millar in California but raised in Canada) published his first novel about detective Lew Archer. The Moving Target would be followed by another 17 books about Archer, each more popular than the last. Archer was clearly and unapologetically modelled on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.