From “The Curtain” (1936):
The air steamed. The walls and ceiling of the glass house dripped. In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches all over the place, and the smell of them was almost as overpowering as the smell of boiling alcohol.
From The Big Sleep (1939)
The air was thick, wet, steamy and laced with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.
If Ann Beattie’s prose has cast a shadow of influence over following generations of writers, Raymond Chandler’s has caused a full-on eclipse. For better or worse, he set much of the stylistic template for the hardboiled detective genre that remains in use today, and what we see here is a fairly early example of how he achieved this. Any Chandler fan should recognize the above sentences, at least how they appeared in The Big Sleep: Philip Marlow is ushered into a greenhouse to meet the decrepit, wheelchair-bound millionaire that will set him off on a classically labyrinthine investigation.
The first version of this scene appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask, and while evocative, the passage has little power of the revision Chandler published three years later in The Big Sleep. Both of these examples appear in David Madden’s Revising Fiction, where Madden convincingly argues that the changes here result from the pulp magazine and the novel having different audiences: “Chandler knew his quick readers of the Black Mask… For the novel, published by Knopf, a quality house, he hoped for more patient readers.”
This explanation, however, is overly simplistic. What we see here, more importantly, is Chandler revising to reach what we now recognize as his trademark style. We’ve discussed before how, as writers, we revise to find our story, but this is “story” in the broadest sense of the word: the defining aspect, the fundamental essence of any given work. In a sense, the entire process of writing involves fumbling towards this essence, which typically only becomes less abstract, more tangible for both ourselves and our readers, through revision.
For Chandler, his style and narrative technique go hand and hand with this essence: once the action of a scene starts, the prose strips down to little more than nouns followed by verbs interspliced with terse dialogue, as in this example which appears later in The Big Sleep:
I hit Agnes on the head with less delicacy than before, kicked her off my feet, and stood up. Brody flicked his eyes at me. I showed him the automatic. He stopped trying to get his hands into his pocket.
“Christ!” He whined. “Don’t let her kill me!”
I began to laugh.
Before the action, however, particularly when setting a scene, Chandler’s style can be surprisingly florid, if balanced with an aggressively masculine sense of irony. We see in his revision that he piles on sensory details that, at the most, are only alluded to in the earlier version: “steamed” becomes “thick, wet, steamy and laced” and so on. “The smell of boiling alcohol” transforms into something much more visceral with the addition of “a blanket.” This type of nearly over-the-top description is the hallmark of Chandler’s writing, what makes him different from Dashiell Hammett and separates him from countless other pulp contemporaries.
The early version reads just fine, but it lacks distinction and doesn’t fully place the reader in Marlowe’s world. By amping up the sensory details through revision, Chandler achieves no less than the discovery of his voice, his story, and yes, his essence.