Author Raymond Chandler, considered the godfather of hardboiled crime—don’t call it noir—stepped out of his fictional mean streets and into the real world on occasion and wrote some rather charming and forward-thinking essays of workplace advice: “Notes to an Employer” and “Advice to a Secretary.” Thank The Strand Magazine for reprinting these a few months back.
Chandler’s secretary at the time he wrote “Advice to a Secretary” was Juanita Messick, and it’s down-to-earth, simultaneously encouraging and, on some points, demanding. Chandler is expressing very clearly his own needs and starts by saying, “Never pretend to know something which you do not know, or only know imperfectly.” This dictum is routinely ignored in social media, but Chandler says it’s a prescription for misunderstanding.
It sounds as if he’s run up against sticklers of various types and considered it a bad experience. He didn’t welcome input about grammar, literary usages, and punctuation, believing there’s more latitude than purists might think, “Punctuation is an art and not a science.” It has to replicate, insofar as possible, the natural cadences of speech, which vary from what precise rules might suggest.
He tells Messick to never take anything for granted. Ask questions if something isn’t clear. “Demand an explanation.” Being my own secretary, I admit to interrogating myself frequently about sentences I wrote a month, or a week, or an hour before: “Yes, but what do you mean here? What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, words that seemed perfectly clear when I wrote them somehow manage to shed all significance. It’s the one advantage of a short attention span; every time I read something I’ve written, it’s new to me.
Chandler was uncomfortable with the employer-employee relationship and there’s no stronger egalitarian impulse today, seventy years later, than when he said, “If he (always a he in Chandler’s piece) is talking nonsense, tell him so; you can do him no greater service.” And he encourages the secretary to stick up for herself when she’s tired or late or must leave on the dot: “We are both just people.”Strand editor Andrew Gulli discovered “Advice to a Secretary” in a shoebox at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
Gulli was engaged by it in part because, he says, writers whose work embodies very dark themes often” are among the most friendly and benign people around.” In my experience, gatherings of mystery and crime writers bear out this impression. Certainly, “Advice to a Secretary” suggests a considerate and accommodating employer. Or, as Cynthia Conrad wrote in BookTrib, “For a moment we see the big-hearted softie under the tough-guy trench coat.”