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Raymond Chandler has been placed at the forefront of American crime novelists, mainly because of his novels about the fictional detective Philip Marlowe. He took up the tradition of the hard-boiled detective story from Dashiell Hammett and carried it further, adding a distinctive style, a biting wit, and a concern for descriptive detail that enabled his writing to transcend the formulaic constraints of the detective genre to leave a lasting legacy to American literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A European Education
Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23,1888. When he was seven years old, his parents divorced and he was taken by his mother to his grand-mother and an unmarried aunt in South London. He attended Dulwich College, acquiring a thorough classical education and taking a particular interest in languages. Among those he studied were Latin, French, German, Armenian, and Hungarian.
In 1905, at the age of seventeen, Chandler left Dulwich to study modern languages on the European mainland. He spent six months in Paris, taking classes in commercial French at a business college, then moved on to Munich, Germany, where he worked with a private tutor. When he returned to England in 1907, he became a naturalized British subject, passed the civil service examination, and took a clerkship in the supply and accounting departments of the Admiralty. Chandler had literary ambitions, and he hoped that the easy hours in the civil service would allow him time to write on the side. He detested the bureaucratic atmosphere, however, and resigned after six months.
Back to the United States
For the next three years, Chandler tried unsuccessfully to make a career as a Lon don man of letters. He worked briefly as a reporter for the Daily Express, from which he was fired, then wrote as a freelancer for the Westminster Gazette, contributing poems, satirical sketches, and short articles on European affairs. In 1911, he began contributing essays and reviews to The Academy, a London literary weekly, but in 1912, he decided he had no future as a London writer.
Chandler next moved to Los Angeles, where he worked odd jobs, including stringing tennis rackets and picking apricots. In 1913, he enrolled in a night-school bookkeeping course and got a job as an accountant. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Chandler enlisted with the Canadian, not the U.S., army. He was sent to the front lines in France, but only a few months later, he was transferred to the Royal Air Force (RAF) for training as a pilot. He remained in England for the rest of the war, which ended before he completed flight school. Following his discharge in 1919, Chandler returned to the U.S. again and spent some time in the Pacific Northwest, where he made another abortive attempt at a writing career. He worked briefly for a British bank in San Francisco and then returned to Los Angeles.
There, Chandler became involved in an affair with Cissy Pascal, the wife of a friend, and by July she had filed for a divorce from her husband. She was forty-eight and Chandler was only thirty-one. In the early 1920s, Chandler took a job as a bookkeeper for the Dabney Oil Syndicate, which was thriving in the midst of the Los Angeles oil boom. He did well with the company, being promoted to auditor and then vice president. A month after the death of his mother from cancer in January 1924, Chandler married Cissy. He continued in his business career, earning $1,000 a month—the equivalent of a modern salary of more than $100,000 a year. He also began drinking heavily, behaving erratically, and having affairs with the younger women who worked in his office. In 1932, after receiving warnings and reprimands, he was fired from his job.
Another Attempt at a Literary Career
Chandler turned to fiction writing to earn a living, choosing the detective pulp market, in part because he could get paid while learning his craft, and in part because he thought the form had potential for forceful and honest writing. He used the Los Angeles area, with which he had grown familiar, as the setting for most of his works. His first short story, ”Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933), was published by Black Mask, the most prestigious of the detective pulps. He spent the next six years writing for Black Mask and other detective magazines.
In the spring of 1938, Chandler began working on his first novel, The Big Sleep, which introduced the detective and narrator Philip Marlowe. The story is drawn from two of his Black Mask novelettes, ”Killer in the Rain” and ”The Curtain,” along with a small portion of a story called ”Finger Man”—a process he called “cannibalization.” Chandler did not cut and paste passages but rather rewrote entire scenes, in the process tightening his prose and enriching his descriptions. The novel took only three months to complete, and it was published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 1939.
Critical and Commercial Success
By the time Chandler had published his third novel in 1942, he had established himself as one of the leading American detective novelists, but the 1940s mystery market was commercially limited. Detective writers depended primarily upon hardback sales for their income, and sales of a mystery novel seldom topped ten thousand copies. The paperback industry was still in its infancy, and it would not become an important market until after the war ended. At age fifty-five, Chandler had been writing professionally for ten years and was at the top of his form, yet his income was only a few thousand dollars a year.
Because of this, Chandler, like many other novelists during the 1930s and 1940s—including F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner—turned to Hollywood screenwriting to earn the income his books could not produce. Chandler’s career as a screenwriter was a mixture of success and frustration. Chandler recognized the artistic potential of movies and applied himself to learning the craft, but he chafed against the structure of the studio system and the superficiality of movie people. He despised actors, agents, and money men and considered many of the industry’s business practices to be dishonest and corrupt. Most of all, he disliked the limits on his independence as a writer. Chandler desired freedom from deadlines and a chance to work with the few directors and producers whom he respected.
Breaking with Hollywood
By the late 1940s, Chandler was easing himself out of the screenwriting business. His break from Hollywood was made possible, in part, by the development of the American paperback publishing industry, which was flourishing in the postwar book market. Although Chandler published no new fiction during his screenwriting years, his first four novels were all widely reprinted in paperback editions in both England and the United States. Chandler began earning additional royal ties on past work when Avon brought out three paperback collections of his pulp stories.
During these years Chandler resumed drinking heavily. He was becoming increasingly aware of his own aging— his wife was now in her seventies—and reacted with periods of melancholy and womanizing. In 1946, Chandler and his wife moved to La Jolla. Their life there was quiet, almost reclusive; they had few friends and seldom made social engagements. Because of his growing commercial success,
Chandler found himself devoting more and more time to business matters—keeping tax records, negotiating the sale of translation or reprint rights, arranging for a Philip Marlowe radio and television series-and was often distracted from his writing. He did eventually produce his sixth novel, The Long Goodbye (1953), which is widely considered his best work. The book deals, in part, with Marlowe watching over an alcoholic, suicidal writer whose drinking binges interfere with his completion of a book promised to his publisher—an ominous parallel to events in Chandler’s life.
Declining Productivity and Health
Soon after the publication of The Long Goodbye, Cissy Chandler’s health worsened. She had been ill with heart and respiratory trouble for some time and spent much of the summer of 1954 in the hospital, where she was diagnosed with fibrosis of the lungs and confined to an oxygen tent. She died on December 12. Chandler was devastated by her death. He began drinking heavily, and in February of 1955 attempted suicide. He was put in the county hospital initially and then spent six days in a private sanatorium. After his release, Chandler decided to leave California. He went briefly to New York, and then sailed for England. During the last four years of his life Chandler divided his time between England and the United States. In London he was treated as a celebrity and established a circle of acquaintances that included writers, artists, and critics. He also suffered from depression and continued his excessive drinking, which on several occasions resulted in his being hospitalized. Despite this, Chandler still completed another Marlowe novel, Playback (1958).
During the last year of his life Chandler struggled with alcoholism and poor health, spending a large amount of time in hospitals and clinics. Chandler became involved in the personal affairs of his Australian-born secretary, who was in the process of divorcing her husband; the situation sapped his money and his spirits. The matter led to conflicts with several of his friends, including his agent Helga Greene, and a dispute over who would be named the beneficiary of his will. In February 1959, Chandler was hospitalized in La Jolla, and while recuperating, pro posed marriage to Helga Greene. She accepted. They planned to move back to London, but Chandler’s health did not permit it. He made a brief trip to New York to accept the presidency of the Mystery Writers of America— an honorary post—then returned to La Jolla and became ill with pneumonia. He died in the Scripps Clinic on March 26, 1959. He left an unfinished Marlowe novel, known as ”The Poodle Springs Story,” which was posthumously completed by mystery writer Robert Parker and published thirty years after Chandler’s death, in 1989.
Works in Literary Context
Upon the publication of his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), Raymond Chandler was hailed as one of the leading practitioners of the American hard-boiled detective novel, but he received virtually no recognition as a writer of serious literature. During the course of his career his reputation slowly grew, first in England and then in the United States. He did not begin to receive academic attention until after his death, but today his books are studied in classrooms not only as premier examples of the detective novel but also as important works of twentieth-century American literature.
Few of Chandler’s critics have connected his work with that of modernist writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound, perhaps because Chandler did not publish his first novel until 1939, long after the modernist movement had crested. He was, nevertheless, of the same generation as most of the Paris expatriates and other experimental writers of the 1920s. He shared the same upbringing in a culture of strict Victorian morality, witnessed trench war-fare firsthand, and was greatly disillusioned after World War I was over. His writing explores some of the same themes as his fellow modernists: the corruption of society, a search for moral standards and codes of conduct, and the need to find order amid chaos.
Raymond Chandler elevated the genre known as the hard-boiled detective story into an American art form. Throughout his career, Chandler attempted to remove his writings from the formulaic suspense of detective fiction, to the extent that he is often considered an excellent novelist but a rather lame mystery writer. This estimate of Chandler’s literary value is perhaps best expressed by W. H. Auden, himself a devotee of mysteries, who maintained that Chandler’s books should be evaluated ”as works of art.”
Chandler’s novels describe luridly realistic action in a sophisticated literary style uncommon to pulp mystery fiction. He wanted to treat genuine mysteries which do not lend themselves to the solutions of deductive reasoning, and added an element of fantasy to his work in order to suggest, as he put it, ”the country behind the hill.” At the same time, his detective hero Philip Marlowe operates in a world of banal corruption and commercialized living. For many readers Chandler’s books represent the essence of southern California: the superficialities of Hollywood, crime and vice glossed over with wealth, the cult of glamour, and a certain enduring mystery which eludes precise definition.
Self-Aware Tough Guys
One of Chandler’s hall marks was his incorporation of wit and irony into his writing. The detective-narrators of Chandler’s stories use wit to shield themselves against excessive emotion and sentimentality, responding with a wisecrack rather than revealing how they genuinely feel. Much of the heroes’ toughness, furthermore, is a product, not of physical action, but of dialogue. They engage in sarcastic banter with criminals and cops, using humor to show resolve or to refuse to divulge important information. Chandler’s detectives are self-aware, realizing that their hard-boiled exterior is merely a pose—a carryover from the author’s own self-awareness: Chandler knew that his stories walked a fine line between believability and cliche. He had a tendency to burlesque the hard-boiled conventions even while conforming to them, and this tension— between the tough-guy persona and ironic self-awareness— forms the foundation of his narrative style.
Works in Critical Context
Chandler was initially confined by reviewers to the detective genre, but starting in the mid-1940s, some influential British journalists and intellectuals, including Leonard Russell, Elizabeth Bowen, W. H. Auden, Alistair Cooke, and J. B. Priestley, had discovered Chandler’s novels and began arguing for his literary value. By the mid-1950s, their arguments were widely accepted in England, and Chandler was being read and discussed, not as a detective writer, but as an important literary novelist. This view has since come to dominant commentary on Chandler, who is considered one of America’s great authors, not merely one of its great detective writers.
The Big Sleep Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, in which he introduces the detective and narrator Philip Marlowe, was a commercial success by the standards of the detective genre. The book was widely reviewed, but it was segregated to columns dedicated to mystery fiction, and the reviews focused not on the literary merits of the novel, but rather on the toughness of its tone and material. Isaac Anderson of The New York Times notes, ”Most of the characters in this story are tough, many of them are nasty and some of them are both …. As a study in depravity, the story is excellent, with Marlowe standing out as almost the only fundamentally decent person in it.” The anonymous mystery critic for Time reviewed the entire novel in a single sentence: ”Detective Marlowe is plunged into a mess of murderers, thugs and psychopaths who make the characters of Dashiell Hammett and James Cain look like something out of Godey’s Lady’s Book.” Reviewers in Britain, where Chandler first gained respect as a literary writer, were equally dismissive. Nicholas Blake of The Spectator wrote that The Big Sleep ”is American and very, very tough after the Thin Man fashion. Almost everyone in the book is wonderfully decadent, and the author spares us no blushes to point out just how decadent they are.” These notices are less indicative of the reaction to Chandler than they are of the reviewers’ attitudes toward detective fiction, which was considered an escapist form not worthy of serious critical attention. It would be another decade before Chandler began receiving recognition as a writer of serious literature.
The Long Goodbye
Chandler’s last major work, The Long Goodbye, was an occasion for the author to extend the possibilities of the mystery genre, developing its capacity for social and psychological analysis, and expanding the role of the detective. The British response to The Long Goodbye was even more enthusiastic than to his previous books and showed that Chandler had developed a considerable literary reputation in England. J. Maclaren Ross of the London Sunday Times comments in his review,
Mr. Raymond Chandler, whose early work belonged superficially to the genre popularised by Dashiell Hammett, has become, during recent years, the object of an ecstatic cult among intellectuals in both hemispheres. From the basic pattern of the American crime story outlined by his predecessors, he has evolved a highly personal vision of a jungle world ruled by racketeers and rich megalomaniacs.
The American reception of The Long Goodbye was less warm. Though it was given an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the reviews of the novel were mixed. Anthony Boucher of The New York Times Book Review praised the story, writing, Perhaps the longest private-eye novel ever written (over 125,000 words!), it is also one of the best—and may well attract readers who normally shun even the leaders in the field.” The reviewer for The New Yorker found fault, arguing that Mr. Chandler has practically abandoned anything resembling a coherent plot to devote himself to an exhaustive study of manners and mores in California . . . the story . . . hardly seems worth all the bother.”
- Clark, Al. Raymond Chandler in Hollywood. New York: Proteus, 1982.
- Durham, Philip. Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler’s Knight. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.
- Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of Raymond Chandler. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977.
- Hiney, Tom. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.
- Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film. New York: Ungar, 1982.
- MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York: Dutton, 1976. Marling, William. Raymond Chandler. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
- Speir, Jerry. Raymond Chandler. New York: Ungar, 1981.
- Van Dover, J.K., ed. The Critical Responses to Raymond Chandler. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
- Wolfe, Peter. Something More Than Night: The Case of Raymond Chandler. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1985.
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