I’m a Chandler junkie. As in Raymond Chandler. Always have been, always will be.
One of the founding fathers of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, Chandler’s at the head of a semi-long list of writers who taught me a lot about the trade before I ever tried my hand at it.
Most of them are dead. Which means they won’t be calling me out for hanging their names on what I’m about to say about character and dialogue. Not even Chandler, although his cantankerous spirit might just give it a go.
What I learned from Chandler was the importance of character and dialogue over plot. Chandler was, more or less, a ‘pantster,’ the term the modern wags use for writers who tend to make it up as they go along rather than outline elaborate plots and character sketches before they start telling a story.
One of his famous quotes, usually taken out of context: “When in doubt, have a man
come through the door with a gun in his hand.” This line appears in one of the two published versions of his classic essay on the need for realism in crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, which is also a diatribe against the set-piece cozy and amateur sleuth who is an ace at deductive logic.
Chandler dropped this line while explaining the need for constant action in the short crime fiction stories of the pulp magazines where he learned his new trade. But when you line up that quote with the body of Chandler’s work, it takes on a broader meaning that represents the second primary lesson I learned from him — use action and concrete descriptions of place to drive a story largely told through character and dialogue.
Character and dialogue are intertwined. You show a character’s traits — you define them — through dialogue, either snappy exchanges with other characters or the internal dialogue they have with themselves.
Dialogue between characters is a dance where they reveal themselves by what they do and don’t say and the way they say it or stay silent. Internal dialogue is a character dancing in the dark with themselves, but the same revelations occur. Or should occur. If they don’t, a writer has blown a golden opportunity to define a character and give the story life, depth and context.
I’ll give two examples from my latest work, The Best Lousy Choice: An Ed Earl Burch Novel. My main character, Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch, is a cashiered vice and homicide detective. He’s also a terminal smartass who doesn’t know when to shut up. I don’t tell you that — I show it through dialogue with a crooked West Texas sheriff looking to frame him for the murder of a prominent local rancher who died in a suspicious barn fire.
“You run the ID on those shooters I blew away? Bet they’re either freelance talent or connected to some other drug lord slimeball. Looks like you got a little turf war going on. Or maybe Dirt Cheap crossed his cousin. Just guesses on my part. But either way, it ain’t a good look for an anti-drug crusader like you, Sheriff.”
Burch looked at Willingham. The anger that colored his face and flashed in his eyes was gone. He wore the stone mask of a poker player and his voice was a husky whisper as he asked a quiet question.
“You a barnburner, son?”
Burch was flummoxed. No smartass quips, no barbed conjecture. All he had as a comeback was the brass to meet the sheriff’s stare head-on and not flinch.
“Let me put it to you this way — are you a man who could set another man’s barn on fire, burn up his horses, burn up the man himself? Are you that kind of murderin’ sumbitch, a fire worshiper, a man-burner?”
“Jesus, Sheriff — you need to make up your mind what you want to frame me for. First you have me as a gun for hire workin’ for this Malo Garza fella, now you got me as the second coming of Ben Quick’s daddy in The Long Hot Summer. I’m way too ugly for any frame job that needs me to look like Paul Newman.”
“Ugly will do, my friend, if I find out you did the crime.”
Burch also has frequent conversations with his dead partner, Wynn Moore. Burch blames himself for getting his partner killed while they were tracking a narco and murder suspect in Dallas years ago when he still carried a gold shield.
These conversations are real as a dime to Burch and show both the guilt that still gnaws at him and the left-handed relief he’s found when Moore appears. They also reveal the simple and brutal approach to police work Burch learned from Moore.
He felt shaky from his session with Bustamante and fished out the bottle of Percodan and a dented nickel flask from his bag. He shook out a pill, broke it in half and popped it on his tongue, washing it down with a long pull of Maker’s. It wasn’t quite noon but he needed a Percodan cocktail to get rid of the jangles and keep the demons in their holes.
He stood under the fan in his boxers, smoking another Lucky until he felt the half-hit and e-less whisky take hold, then carried the Colt into the bathroom and placed it on the porcelain top of the toilet tank. He reached into the shower stall to turn on the water and wait until it was as hot as he could stand it, then stepped into the scalding spray.
You ain’t right, sport model. Poppin’ them pills, sluggin’ whiskey and it ain’t hardly noon yet.
Keeps me sane, Wynn. On track and movin’ down the trail instead of curled up in a corner screamin’ about demons and snakes with wings.
Turnin’ into a goddam junkie and day drinker, you ask me.
I ain’t askin’.
Never could talk sense to you, sport model. One more thing, then I’ll shut my yap. You fly the black flag on this one. Take that rulebook we usta have to work around and chuck it right out the fuckin’ window. You sabe?
Rulebook already chucked, Wynn. No quarter. No prisoners. No judge and jury.
Good deal, sport model.
Chandler’s novels and short stories are packed with detailed physical descriptions of the rooms, places and streetscapes where his stories take place.
These “concrete descriptions” help create a Los Angeles that is so real that it becomes a character unto itself. Far more than mere backdrop, these descriptions of place define the characters that live and move through this landscape. So much so that it’s hard to imagine Marlowe anywhere else but L.A. Or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux without New Iberia and New Orleans.
This struck a chord with me, largely because of my upbringing and lineage. I come from a long line of North Carolina hillbilly storytellers. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins told stories of our kin and the mountains my ancestors called home, creating a keen sense of family and place in my sister and me, even though we grew up in suburban Philadelphia.
As a journalist, I was always fascinated with how the land shaped the people who lived there, even as they struggled to make a living from it. I also fell in love with the harsh beauty of West Texas, with stark mountain ranges that look like the bones of the earth on display for any and all to see.
It seemed like the perfect place for the bloody tales of revenge and redemption I was trying to tell in my Ed Earl Burch novels, a land so forbiddingly beautiful and demanding that it shapes the characters in my books and gives resonance to their dialogue.
It’s another way of revealing who your characters are. And showing instead of telling is the essence of the writer’s trade.
Jim Nesbitt is the author of three hard-boiled crime thrillers set in Texas and northern Mexico that feature Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered vice and homicide detective. His latest, The Best Lousy Choice, is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.