‘Never stupid to ask questions’: Rare Raymond Chandler essay gives writing, office tips

Novelist Raymond Chandler
Novelist Raymond Chandler in 1946.
(Associated Press)
Share via

Philip Marlowe, that most self-reliant of fictional detectives, had no boss and no one to boss around. Not so his creator, Raymond Chandler, who needed some help.

“Advice to a Secretary,” a rarely seen essay published this week in the spring issue of the literary quarterly Strand Magazine, is a wry set of instructions Chandler issued to his assistant in the 1950s, Juanita Messick. For Chandler, who had little family beyond his wife and few close friends, work was personal. His tone with Messick varied from indulgent employer to hapless spouse.

“Assert your personal rights at all times,” wrote Chandler, whose thrillers depicting the seamier side of Los Angeles in the mid-20th century are classics of the genre. “You are a human being. You will not always feel well. You will be tired and want to lie down. Say so. Do it. You will get nervous; you will want to go out for a while. Say so, and do it. If you get to work late, don’t apologize. Just give a simple explanation of why, even if it is a silly explanation. You may have had a flat tire. You may have overslept. You may have been drunk. We are both just people.”


More of Chandler’s observations:

“I am only exacting in the sense that I want things right. I am not exacting in the sense that I expect human beings to subordinate their own lives to my whims. If you should ever feel that I am acting that way, for God’s sake tell me so.”

“I must have order and organization from you, because I lack it myself.”

Former President Obama joined filmmaker Ava DuVernay for a conversation about “A Promised Land,” his legacy and activism during a Book Club event.

April 21, 2021

The essay was discovered, like a missing clue, in a shoebox at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli, who has published obscure works by Chandler (“Notes to An Employer”), William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and many others, was anxious to show Chandler in a more personal and lighthearted way.

“The reason for publishing this work is that often writers who have written works that have very dark themes are among the most friendly and benign people around,” Gulli said. “This work shows a softer side to an author who has been associated with a bleak worldview.”

Chandler was open-minded enough when it came to Messick’s whereabouts but particular about her stenography. He once sent her a brief memo dedicated entirely to the misuse of present participles. In “Advice to a Secretary,” he points out that Messick transcribed a word incorrectly, “accept” instead of “except.”

“If you do not fully understand a sentence, or a word, or a punctuation mark, say so and demand an explanation,” Chandler tells her. “If the explanation you get does not clarify things for you, demand another explanation. Do not be satisfied with anything less than you want. It is never stupid to ask questions. It is only stupid to guess at the answers and take a chance on being wrong.”


Chandler scholar Sarah Trott notes that Chandler’s decision not to give Marlowe a secretary is in contrast to such sleuths as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. While Chandler had a warm, playful side and both the author and his wife, Cissy, became close to Messick, Chandler avoided depicting such intimacy in “The Long Goodbye,” “The Big Sleep” and other Marlowe novels.

“He was an introverted character,” Trott told the AP in a recent email, recalling how the director Billy Wilder regarded him as “kind of acid, sour, grouchy.”

“The isolated lifestyle that Marlowe lives is, I imagine, the sort of lifestyle Chandler coveted,” Trott wrote.