In the world of Raymond Chandler’s gritty whodunits, a tough but honorable private eye wanders a landscape of human depravity. The detective solves murders and exposes deceit and corruption.
Nearly 60 years after his death, Chandler’s latest story, only recently uncovered and published for the first time this month, continues a crusade against social injustices. But the evil in this short story is very different: the health care system in the United States.
Chandler, whose novels include “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye,” wrote it toward the end of his life, between 1956 and 1958. (He died at 70 in 1959.) But the tale, “It’s All Right — He Only Died,” could pass as modern fiction, offering sharp criticism about a health care system chasing higher profits and patients who cannot afford treatment.
“It’s like Chandler is looking at the future and seeing how the health care crisis would get even worse,” said Andrew F. Gulli, the managing editor of Strand Magazine, a literary quarterly that published the story. “But what struck me about this was that it was something different and unlike anything he had ever written.”
The protagonist in the 655-word story is not the dogged gumshoe Philip Marlowe, the detective made famous in Chandler’s books and the movies they spawned, but a nameless, homeless man. Just hit by a truck, the unconscious man is taken to General Hospital.
Instead of immediately treating him, a nurse and a doctor coldly debate whether he’s worth the effort to save. He’s filthy, smells of whiskey and his pockets are empty. No money to pay the hospital’s $50 admission fee.
“I’m sure he’s just drunk, Doctor,” the nurse says. “And he hasn’t a dime. Why did the police bring him here? How can we run the hospital?”
A millionaire had donated money to fund half of General Hospital, but not all of it, and had recently reminded the doctors, nurses and staff that the hospital, after all, “is not run for charity.” With that directive on their minds, the doctor and nurse take another look at the injured man sprawled on a stretcher.
“Call the County,” the doctor says. “Have them move the patient.”
The homeless man is passed off to the public hospital, joining others who lack the money and sufficient insurance for care elsewhere. The story packs a surprise at the end.
More than a half-century after Chandler wrote the story, public hospitals remain a destination for the sick who have nowhere else to go. The hospitals refuse to turn people away, absorbing the cost of providing free care and recouping it by charging everyone else more.
Chandler, who spent about two decades in England, had become acutely familiar with how the health system in the United States compared with public care in Europe. Later in his life, he cared for his ailing wife in America; despondent after her death, he ended up in hospitals after a failed suicide attempt and a drunken fall down a staircase.
“His experiences influence the story,” Mr. Gulli said. “He was trying to be Raymond Chandler the activist, rather than Raymond Chandler the detective story writer.”
Sarah Trott, who wrote a 2016 book about the influence of war on Chandler’s writing, said the short story makes clear that he disapproved with the state of health care.
“By candidly confronting the reader about whether money and wealth ‘should’ make a difference in the quality of medical care, Chandler launches an incredibly bold social challenge,” Ms. Trott wrote in an afterword in Strand Magazine.
The story of how Mr. Gulli discovered “It’s All Right — He Only Died” is its own tale of dogged digging.
Mr. Gulli, 42, who fell in love as a child with Chandler through a television series featuring Detective Marlowe, tries to fill the pages of Strand Magazine with a mix of original fiction and unpublished stories by famous writers, including William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
He started a search for unpublished stories by Chandler several years ago, he said. He contacted the University of Oxford and the University of California, Los Angeles, both major repositories of his work, and reviewed their catalogs.
Nothing new could be found at U.C.L.A. And a review of up to 80 works at Oxford also came up empty. But before he gave up, Mr. Gulli said he noticed three unfamiliar cursive words on a package from Oxford: “It’s all right.”
He called the librarian and asked for a copy. “I had a good feeling when I was opening the package,” he said.
In many ways, “It’s All Right” packed Chandler’s familiar style. Short words and short sentences, delivered with force and without useless flair. Crisp dialogue. But it was also different: no Detective Marlowe, no murders to solve.
“It was very strong, it was very punchy,” Mr. Gulli said. “You felt there was a lot of spontaneity in it.”