Tag Archives: Raymond Chandler

The Elephant of Surprise

I like to surprise myself occasionally, and that includes what I write about. Real life and fiction can both be well-ordered, which is fine as a framework to rely upon, but ultimately unsatisfying.

In writing, there’s Raymond Chandler’s advice about having a man with a gun enter a scene to liven things up. Surprises needn’t be that dramatic to be influential. While we’re creatively writing away, it can be easy to miss the wood for the trees, and it pays to step away from the text to see it as a reader might.

In nearing the end of my fourth novel, Sin Killers, I realised that I’d missed something out. My detective protagonist is planning to arrest a deadly married couple, who he suspects of running a campaign of intimidation, blackmail, kidnapping and murder.

As my story stood, he’d only met them once, quite by chance and for just a minute. There needed to be some form of confrontation, before he swooped in to arrest them. It was what a reader would expect to happen—a rounding out of the villains’ characters—via verbal sparring with their hunter.

I duly wrote a chapter that I hadn’t planned, where he watches them perform at a folk evening. The music they play, and the ghost story and poetry they orate reveals their attitudes towards retribution. Talking to them afterwards, my detective confirms that he’s chasing the right suspects.

I sometimes remind myself of the advice that explorer and writer Quentin Crewe gave about surprises:

Surprise yourself occasionally, even give yourself a shock. It might be just what people were expecting you to do.

This is bittersweet wisdom for me, as I once met Quentin Crewe. It was in 1981, and he was about to leave on a trans-Saharan expedition. He and his team came into the pub where I worked as a barman, leaving their mighty desert vehicles parked outside right where I could see them.

They were looking for a fit young man, able to join them at short notice, as one of their crew had broken his leg that morning. His sponsorship was in place, to fund the stand-in so I wouldn’t have to pay a thing…could I go?

At the time, I was doing bar work to save for going away to teacher training college in a couple of months. I had no family or girlfriend who needed me, and I could have postponed my plans to become a teacher for a year. Instead of choosing excitement and unpredictability, I went to college in some spurious attempt at being respectable. As the old saying goes, ‘We regret the things that we didn’t do, rather than the things that we did.’

Quentin Crewe wrote a book about his expedition, In Search Of The Sahara.

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Ever since then, I’ve been watchful for missing the chance of adding surprise to my life, and that includes in my writing.

Have you ever almost missed out—in life, or in your writing?

A Man with a Gun

There’s an old bit of advice given to writers of crime stories on how to move the action forward. It was given by Raymond Chandler in an essay called The Simple Art of Murder in a magazine called the Saturday Review of Literature, published in April 1950.

In the essay, he laments that while his stories may lack realism due to the compressed way that they show events, with only a limited group of characters, that:

This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.

I remembered this advice, as I contemplated how to proceed with my second novel Who Kills A Nudist? I was at the midway point, with the murder at the core of my story and various subplots involving drug smuggling, illegal weapons importation and people trafficking adding murkiness to the villainy. My detectives are surveilling the suspect’s mansion from a boat on the river running beside his estate—their position means they can see things well, but not easily intercede.

Their suspicions about the main baddy being involved with bringing in guns from Europe are proved when his henchman starts playing with an automatic pistol while drunk. He’s apparently suicidal, placing the muzzle in his mouth, but they are reduced to being spectators owing to their precarious location. This scene provided my tale with tension, as well as unexpected comedy, and helped me decide the direction of the next few chapters.

The ‘gun in his hand’ needn’t be taken literally, for any unexpected event can move a story on. Often, we write such perfect worlds, with characters who don’t stumble over their words imparting just what needs to be said, and the action unfolding seamlessly. But accidents do happen, and people lose their tempers unpredictably.

Why not throw a spanner in the works and see what happens?

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Older Debut Authors

A new writers’ group has started to counter bias against older debut authors. As a sage if not entirely wise writer of 65, I welcome this development.

There have been some notable famous authors who started out late, including Penelope Fitzgerald, Mary Wesley, Henry Miller, George Elliot, Richard Adams, Raymond Chandler, Alex Haley, Charles Bukowski and Annie Proulx.

Prime Readers may be of interest to mature writers:



It’s long annoyed me that so much attention is given to those under 40 when it comes to prizes, bursaries and competitions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for encouraging young talent and it’s in my bones to pass on knowledge, but there comes a time in life when you start to feel like you’re invisible. A debut author of any age needs support, encouragement and recognition.

Anyone can write at any age. Mary Wesley is a shining example of someone who started out late, with her breakout novel The Camomile Lawn published when she was 72. Her last novel came when she was 85, and she was a very frisky woman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wesley

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Does Size Matter?

The length of a manuscript influences whether it will be published traditionally. This is particularly true for new authors. I made a beginner’s mistake by not considering this when I wrote my first novel The Perfect Murderer. If I’d seen any advice about how long genre novels should be, my brain glossed over the figures.

I wasn’t consciously aiming for any particular length, for though I had a rough structure for the storyline I write in an organic way, allowing the action to evolve through what the characters would do in the circumstances. Sometimes they did things that I hadn’t anticipated, but it felt right to stay true to their natures.

I had a brief frisson of achievement when I passed the 100,000-word count, anticipating that I’d be finished at about 130,000 words. I was correct, though after reading through the manuscript several times, then leaving it alone for a week, a nagging feeling arose that it felt distinctly unfinished.

This was mainly because there were so many questions left unanswered, to do with the fates of my two killers and their victims. I’ve read thousands of cop stories, mysteries and thrillers in the last fifty years, and it’s always rather bothered me when I find myself thinking “but what happened to?” at the end of a story. There can be good reasons for leaving things unresolved, of course, such as the planned reappearance of a character in a sequel. Sometimes vagueness is a result of savage editing or even forgetfulness. Raymond Chandler forgot to identify who’d killed a character in The Big Sleep.

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The end of my novel felt snapped-off, full of rough edges, so I smoothed things off by writing an afterword, explaining what became of the corpses of my goodies, innocents and baddies. I also set my lead detective up for a sequel, while not ruling out that the serial killer hadn’t perished and could return. This took my manuscript up to 160,000 words.

My beta-reader, who’s just finished reading the novel, loved that I’d written an afterword and that there was a feeling of optimism after what had been a rather harrowing tale. But the length of my novel is a no-no for a first thriller by an unknown author, as the guideline is 80,000 to 100,000, with most published first books being at the lower end of those figures. Other genres vary in what is expected for a word count, with science-fiction and fantasy novels the longest at up to 150,000 words, followed by historical at 100,000+ and bringing up the rear are westerns, which can be as short as 45,000 words.

I expect that we’ve all read novels much longer than this. I forced myself through the 1,267,069 words of Marcel Proust’s A La Rechcherche Du Temps Perdu, as a teenager – I didn’t have a social life! The last 69 words were the best… I’ve since read many other long novels by Thomas Wolfe, Iris Murdoch, John Irving, Victor Hugo and Tolstoy, enjoying them all. Sometimes it takes that long to narrate a story, and also there’s a challenge to the reader to last the course. Hence the phrase “I like a nice long read.”

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2015 turned into the year of the long novel. After the success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch at 784 pages and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries at 864 pages, which became the longest novel to win the Booker Prize, several other novelists have cracked the 1,000 page barrier. 


I decided not to rewrite my novel, as taking an editorial chainsaw to it to halve its length would have been a travesty. I don’t expect a literary agent, or publisher with an open submission policy, to take the risk of publishing something that long by an unknown author, but that’s OK. One needs to be an established and successful writer to have long novels accepted. It’s amazing to me that J.K. Rowling got away with such lengthy books, particularly as they were aimed at young readers who supposedly have limited attention spans. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was 896 pages and 257,045 words! Something tells me that her publisher didn’t want to edit the goose that was laying so many golden eggs…

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Instead, I wrote a prequel to The Perfect Murderer, called Who Kills A Nudist? which introduced my detective and forensic pathologist characters. This second first novel was a comparative doddle, by limiting it to 80,000 words, and I’ve got the enthralling sequel all lined up to publish afterwards – hurrah!

How long are your novels?

Have any of you experienced similar problems of conforming to what is expected for word counts? Or have you had the opposite problem of feeling like you’re padding the narrative out to reach a nice size?

I must admit that I’ve had the wicked thought of doing this with a couple of my novellas, which are about 30,000 words long.

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Smart One-Liners

I first became aware of smart one-liners as a child, watching film classics on television, many of them film noir movies from the 1940s and 1950s, starring such actors as Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Graham, Rita Hayworth and Dick Powell.

Hardboiled novels by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain were turned into films. More recently, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Mickey Spillane have continued the fiction noir genre of solitary, wisecracking private investigators. Their work has also provided a rich resource for film scripts. Mickey Spillane actually played his signature detective character Mike Hammer in one film.

It’s always a tricky problem, for a writer to decide how much detail to use for their protagonist’s looks and behaviour, but these authors have a knack for summing things up in amusing and observant quips. In Farewell My Lovely featuring Raymond Chandler’s hard-drinking private eye Philip Marlowe, a client called Lindsay Marriott asks the detective to accompany him on a rendezvous but won’t say why. Marlowe suggests, “You just want me to go along and hold your hat?” which annoys Marriott:

I’m afraid I don’t like your manner,he said, using the edge of his voice.
I’ve had complaints about it, I said. But nothing seems to do any good.

In Key Largo, a film adaptation of a stage play, Humphrey Bogart observes: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

In a 1956 film The Killing, which was based on a novel, a veteran criminal planning one last big heist, dismisses his wife with, “You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”

It’s not just noir movies and pulp fiction that contain brilliant one-liners. In Gone With The Wind, Rhett Butler is giving Scarlett O’Hara an admiring glance:

Scarlett: “Cathleen, Who’s that?”

Cathleen Calvert: “Who?”

Scarlett: “That man looking at us and smiling. The nasty, dark one.”

Cathleen Calvert: “My dear, don’t you know? That’s Rhett Butler. He’s from Charleston. He has the most terrible reputation.”

Scarlett: “He looks as if…as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.”

I love the last line, which is telling of Rhett’s lasciviousness, as well as revealing Scarlett’s self-awareness of her sexual allure, that she’s used to manipulate puppy dog male admirers, but which is about to be tested properly for the first time by a real hound of a man.

In my own writing, I tend to approach character description in a roundabout and subtle way, not giving overt and detailed descriptions of someone’s height, hair colour, weight, complexion, etc, as soon as they make their first appearance. I try to use witty observations by my protagonist detective as a shorthand way of saying what someone looks like, as well as providing humour and an insight into his character.

To tighten my descriptive writing, I’ve been reading Mickey Spillane and Walter Mosley, who are masterful at snappy dialogue. Take this description from Spillane’s The Big Kiss which reads like an astringent daisy chain of one-liners,It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world. The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.’

Walter Mosley, in Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore, has his protagonist, a black porn queen observe: “Love makes you blind to your own survival. And if it doesn’t then it’s not love at all.”

From my own Cornish Detective novels:

Of a greedy massage parlour owner: ‘Caradoc kept quiet, his cheeks pouching as he thrust an underslung jaw forward like the drawer of a cash register.’

Of the massage parlour owner’s henchman: ‘Men as heavily scarred as him carried a warning notice that they’d survived their wounds, and were capable of inflicting similar damage. He radiated malevolence. Fuck with me, and I’ll fuck with you.’

Of a shifty police informer: ‘His skinny acned appearance proved it. He’d given a home to a moustache which looked about to continue its wandering at any moment.’

Of an elderly, unflappable barmaid: ‘Karla was a university student in her final year, who helped out in the vacations, while Doreen was three times older, a veteran barmaid who’d seen it all and done quite a lot of it as well.’

Whatever you call them—wisecracks, witticisms, quips, one-liners—such stylistic flourishes help to make a writer’s voice.

Do you use them? Examples, please.

Do they get on your nerves or do you like them?

Do you have any favourites from famous books?