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Raymond Chandler's use of rhetoric

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"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."

Raymond Chandler is rightly celebrated as one of the USA's most famous and successful authors. In 1940s America, his character Philip Marlowe - the protagonist of such novels and movies as The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely - was the guy all men wanted to be and all women wanted to be with. In fact, the very name 'Marlowe' is almost synonymous with 'private detective'.

Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe
Robert Mitchum as hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe

He only published seven full novels during his life, all of which - except Playback - were made into movies, some several times. Many people consider Humphrey Bogart to be the quintessential Marlowe, but personally I prefer Robert Mitchum; Marlowe was a big guy and Bogart just doesn't cut it with me - somehow I don't ever imagine Bogart being able to knock me out. You just know Mitchum could, whatever your size.

The poet W H Auden once wrote that Chandler's “powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art” and I couldn't agree more. I've known his movies for decades but only read my first Chandler novel last year, after which I immediately downloaded and read his entire repertoire. He could have written the telephone directory or a grocery list and I'd have devoured it.

He's renowned as the master of the snappy one-liner, but many people don't realize just how many rhetorical devices and figures of speech he used in his books. If you've never read Chandler I almost envy you, for you've a treat ahead. But in case you don't want to, I've trawled through his books (and it was a pleasure not a penance to do so) and identified some of my favorite rhetorical examples below.

ANALOGY is a kind of extended metaphor or long simile in which a comparison is made between two things in order to develop a line of reasoning. While it is similar to simile, similes are generally more artistic and brief, while an analogy is longer and explains a thought process.

"It seemed to me for an instant that there was no sound in the bar, that the sharpies had stopped sharping and the drunk on the stool stopped burbling away and it was just like after the conductor taps on his music stand and raises his arms and holds them poised" (The Long Goodbye)

ANADIPLOSIS repeats one or several words that end one clause or sentence and begin another.

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." (Farewell My Lovely)

ANAPHORA repeats the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, or sentences:

"Her eyes went down to the paper very, very slowly. Her eyes held on to it. Her hand moved to take it, but his was quicker" (Playback)

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun." (Farewell MY Lovely)

"Common sense says go home and forget it, no money coming in. Common sense always speaks too late. Common sense is the guy who tells you you ought to have your brakes relined last week before you smashed a front end this week. Common sense is the Monday morning quarterback who could have won the ball game if he had been on the team. But never is. He's high up in the stands with a hip flask. Common sense is the little man in a grey suit who never makes a mistake in addition. But it's always someone else's money he's adding up." (Playback)

"There was something Mongolian about his face, something south-of-the-border, something Indian, and something darker than that" (Playback)

"I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name" (The Little Sister)

"Thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away" (The High Window)

ANTISTROPHE repeats the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses.

"The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man" (The Simple Art Of Murder)

HYPERBOLE is the deliberate exaggeration for emphasis or effect. It must be clearly intended as an exaggeration, and should be used sparingly to be effective. That is, don't exaggerate everything, but treat hyperbole like an exclamation point, to be used only occasionally.

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window" (Farewell My Lovely)

"I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard." (The King In Yellow)

"One of the women had enough ice on her to cool the Mojave desert and enough make-up to paint a steam yacht" (Playback)

"Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants. . ." (The Big Sleep)

"He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus. I bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun it. When I had it nicely spinning I gave it a full swing and hit myself on the back of the head with the floor" (Pearls Are A Nuisance)

"The big foreign car drove itself, but I held the wheel for the sake of appearances" (Farewell, My Lovely)

"She's a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she's washed her hair since Coolidge's second term, I'll eat my spare tire, rim and all" (Farewell, My Lovely)

"I recall when this town was so quiet dogs slept in the middle of the boulevard and you had to stop your car, if you had a car, and get out and push them out of the way" (Playback)

LITOTES is a particular form of understatement, which denies the opposite of the word which otherwise would be used.

"She had a pair of legs - so far as I could determine - that were not painful to look at" (Playback)

"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills" (The Big Sleep)

MEIOSIS is a deliberate understatement, i.e. the opposite of HYPERBOLE.

"The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building." (Farewell My Lovely)

"He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck" (Farewell My Lovely)

"I moved to the door. I wouldn't say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors" (Playback)

METAPHOR is the comparison of two different things by speaking of one in terms of the other. Unlike a SIMILE or ANALOGY, a metaphor asserts that one thing actually is another thing, not just like it.

"Across the street somebody had delirium tremens in the front yard and a mixed quartet tore what was left of the night into small strips and did what they could to make the strips miserable. While this was going on the exotic brunette didn't move more that one eyelash." (Red Wind)

REPLICATION (also called Scesis Onomaton) emphasises something by expressing it in a string of generally synonymous phrases or statements. While it should be used carefully, this deliberate and obvious restatement can be quite effective. Although it can use more than three, it tends to be most effective when used in conjunction with a TRICOLON:

"Ok, Marlowe," I said between my teeth. "You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it" (Farewell My Lovely)

"I recall when this town was so quiet dogs slept in the middle of the boulevard and you had to stop your car, if you had a car, and get out and push them out of the way. Sundays it was like you was already buried. Everything shut up as tight as a bank vault. You couldn't walk down Grand Street and have as much fun as a stiff in a morgue. You couldn't even buy a pack of cigarettes. It was so quiet you could of heard a mouse combin' his whiskers" (Playback)

"All right," I yelled. "I’ll go up with you. Just lay off carrying me. Let me walk. I’m fine. I’m all grown up. I go to the bathroom and everything. Just don’t carry me" (Farewell My Lovely)

"'This is a rich town, friend,' he said slowly. 'I've studied it. I've boned up on it. I've talked to guys about it'"(Playback)

"You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you" (The Big Sleep)

"I. . . just sat, not smoking, not even thinking. I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn't want to eat. I didn't even want a drink. I was the page from yesterday's calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket " (The Little Sister)

SIMILE is a comparison between two different things that resemble each other, comparing an unfamiliar thing to some familiar thing known to the listener, usually prefaced with the words 'as' or 'like':

"The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings." (The Big Sleep)

"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish." (The Man Who Liked Dogs)

"There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street.  They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad's belly." (Farewell My Lovely)

"The walls here are as thin as a hoofer's wallet." (Playback)

"I called him from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest." (Trouble Is My Business)

"I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split" (The Long Goodbye)

"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietist dressed street in the world, he looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake" (The Big Sleep)

"'Please don't get up,' she said in a voice like the stuff they use to line summer clouds with" (The Long Goodbye)

"It jarred me. It was like watching the veneer peel off and leave a tough kid in an alley. Or like hearing an apparently refined woman start expressing herself in four- letter words" (The Lady In The Lake)

"She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight" (Little Sister)

"Thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away" (The High Window)

TRICOLONis the use of words, phrases, examples, or the beginnings or endings of phrases or sentences in threes.

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun." (Farewell MY Lovely)

"Her eyes went down to the paper very, very slowly. Her eyes held on to it. Her hand moved to take it, but his was quicker" (Playback)

‘Wherever I went, whatever I did, this was what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house" (Playback)

"The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man" (The Simple Art Of Murder)

"I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name" (The Little Sister)

"'This is a rich town, friend,' he said slowly. 'I've studied it. I've boned up on it. I've talked to guys about it'"(Playback)

 

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