Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was a leading exponent of the hard-boiled detective novel and, with Dashiell Hammett, a seminal figure in American crime fiction.
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, of parents of Irish Quaker descent. His parents were divorced when he was very young, and in 1895 his mother took him to England where they lived with relatives in South London. There he attended Dulwich School from 1900 to 1905, and the following year he went to business school in Paris. In 1907, in order to qualify for a civil service job, he was naturalized as a British citizen. A few years later he free-lanced as a journalist for the Daily Express and showed his first creative inclination with some poetry and satire for the Westminster Gazette.
As an American living abroad, Chandler had grown up with an ethnic ambivalence and a curiosity about his native land that finally, in 1912, prompted his return to the United States; his first jobs in the United States were in St. Louis and on the West Coast, as a bookkeeper. In World War I he served with the Canadian army and the Royal Air Force. After demobilization Chandler settled permanently in southern California, principally in Los Angeles, which was to be the setting of his stories and novels. He worked as a bookkeeper for a California oil syndicate and in 1924 became vice-president of the company; that same year he married Cissy Pascal, a woman 18 years his senior. In the economic crash of 1929 Chandler's business foundered, but he held on to his post until 1932, when drinking and womanizing got him fired.
Choosing a Writing Career
Ironically, the firing was almost immediately salutary. Caught in the widespread economic squeeze, Chandler reverted to his earlier interest in writing and, at the unlikely age of 44, joined the ranks of some 1,300 American pulp writers. Strongly influenced by Dashiell Hammett and encouraged by Joseph T. Shaw, editor of the best of the pulps, Black Mask, Chandler embarked on his new career fully armed with a philosophy of crime fiction: he had no high-flown ideas regarding its esthetic worth, but he did think it an important literary form which owed the public a greater degree of honesty and reality than it ordinarily provided.
He felt that too many mystery writers, including Agatha Christie, deliberately plotted their stories to throw the reader off, and that the British writers especially were guilty of making their detectives genteel snobs. Chandler's famous essay "The Simple Art of Murder" credits Hammett with giving "murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." Chandler recognized, however, that there were pitfalls in the hard-boiled approach: "The realistic style is easy to abuse. It is easy to fake; brutality is not strength, flipness is not wit, edge-of-the-chair writing can be as boring as flat writing."
Chandler was a painstaking craftsman and therefore not at all prolific: he wrote only 20 stories in all, and his annual earnings during the 1930s averaged only about $1,500. His first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," took him five months to write. Years later, after his novelistic successes, the best of his stories, originally printed in Black Mask and Dime Detective, were collected in Red Wind (1946) and The Simple Art of Murder (1950), but the chief importance of the stories is that he pirated them for his novels. Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), begun when he was 50, is a re-working of two of his stories, "Killer in the Rain" (1935) and "The Curtain" (1936). The novel form gave Chandler a more literate audience than he'd had in the pulps, and it introduced his readers to Philip Marlowe, a wise-cracking, half-cynical, half-romantic, first-person narrator-detective. The novel sold pretty well, but earned Chandler only $2,000.
Chandler's second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), a powerful study of obsession and duplicity, has Marlowe on a mission for an outsized ex-con named Moose Malloy. Even more than The Big Sleep it established Chandler as a master chronicler of Los Angeles—of its criminal world, its parasitical upper class, and its general pattern of social corruption.
The High Window (1942) had a pre-publication title of "The Brasher Doubloon" (the valuable coin that the plot revolves around). It is both wise-cracking and moralistic in delineating the ruthlessness and decadence of the rich, particularly their ability to pervert justice.
The Lady in the Lake (1943) was a best-seller and was probably Chandler's best novel. It is a superbly plotted story in which the police, never an object of Chandler's admiration, come off even worse than usual.
The first four novels, like the stories that had inspired them, showed off Chandler's greatest gift—his style. He was a more rococo writer than Hammett, and occasionally the figurative language is embarrassingly strained, but at his best he could get off some daring, delightfully apt similes: "I thought he was as crazy as a pair of waltzing mice, but I like him." "His long pale hands made gestures like sick butterflies over the top of his desk." "Pieces of plaster and wood flew like fists at an Irish wedding." "The sky was as black as Carrie Nation's bonnet."
Writing for Film and Radio
Movie adaptations of Chandler's novels began as early as 1941, and in 1943 Chandler started a long writing association with Hollywood, although he could never work up any respect for the film industry. He once described Academy Award night as "Hollywood's exquisite attempt to kiss itself in the back of the neck." His first screenplay was "The Blue Dahlia" (1945), which starred Alan Ladd as a returning World War II veteran surrounded by social sleaze who learns of his wife's infidelity and is implicated in her murder. In 1947 Chandler earned $4,000 a week for his work on the original screenplay "Playback" and royalties from several Philip Marlowe radio series; one, in 1947, starred Van Heflin; another enjoyed a substantial run from 1948 to 1951. This commercial success was achieved despite an uneasy relationship with radio and film companies, who disliked dealing with him because he demanded some measure of control over the scripts.
His fifth novel, The Little Sister (1949), was published by Houghton Mifflin after Chandler left his original publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, over their insistence on publishing a detective novel that he felt plagiarized both himself and Hammett. The Little Sister shows a falling off of Chandler's skills: it has too many wisecracks and too little tension.
In 1950 Chandler wrote a screen play of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train but director Alfred Hitchcock was displeased by it, and it was re-written by a second scenarist. Chandler's creative decline is further evident in his last two novels. The principal interest in The Long Goodbye (1953) is that it is Chandler's most autobiographical novel. Cast in his familiar murder mystery mold, it projects a bleak vision of southern California and a theme of lovelessness and failure close to Chandler's feelings about his own life. Playback (1958), based on his original screenplay, is the weakest of his novels.
Profile and Last Years
Chandler was a tweedy, boozing, remote intellectual. He was a lonely man, shy and irritable in company, sometimes sarcastic and rude. He had difficulty fitting in with his chosen California environment, but he also loathed New York, especially its cab drivers. In fact, he disliked most people and had few friends; he met Hammett only once and liked him and had great admiration for and a lengthy correspondence with Somerset Maugham.
The one abiding relationship Chandler had was with his wife, to whom he was, in his own fashion, strongly devoted. When she died in her 80s, in 1954, Chandler became depressed to the point of attempted suicide. His own health was poor: he suffered from a severe sinus condition and from a number of drink-related ailments.
He moved to London in 1955, but his depression only deepened and his drinking grew worse, so he returned to the United States in 1956. He died in La Jolla, California, on March 26, 1959, of pneumonia either caused or aggravated by heavy drinking and self-neglect. He died a disappointed, frustrated man despite his natural gifts as a writer and his considerable achievements.
Further Reading on Raymond Chandler Jr
The authorized biography is The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976) by Frank MacShane, who also edited Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (1981). Also, the title essay in The Simple Art of Murder (1950) provides some valuable insights into Chandler's views on art and life.
Additional Biography Sources
MacShane, Frank, The life of Raymond Chandler, Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1986, 197.