Yesterday (July 23) was Raymond Chandler’s 125th birthday. I meant to write a post about that, but as seems to be the case in general with my blogging at the moment, I didn’t get round to it. Anyway, today I found time to add my short biographical piece on Raymond Chandler, which appears in Steven Powell’s 100 American Crime Writers to my Articles pages. You can read all 2500 words of it here. There are quite a few Chandler-related posts and pages on this blog now, so here is a round-up:
Raymond Chandler: A Matter of Disguise (an early academic article of mine).
Also, I just posted something about In a Lonely Place (novel and film) over at the Venetian Vase.
Steven Powell reports over at the Venetian Vase that his book 100 American Crime Writers is now available. I handed over the reins to this book at an early stage, back in 2010 (or was it 2009?), when I found I was unable–too ill, too busy–to continue working on it. Steve took it on as a moribund project and has gone his own way with it. I’m delighted to see the book in print. Here’s what the blurb has to say:
From Edgar Allan Poe to James Ellroy, crime writers have provided some of the most popular, controversial, acclaimed and disturbing works in American literature. 100 American Crime Writers provides critical biographies of some of the greatest and most important crime writers in American history. Both an important scholarly work and an enjoyable read accessible to a wider audience, this addition in Palgrave’s Crime Files series includes discussion of the lives of key crime writers, as well as analysis of the full breadth and scope of the genre – from John Dickson Carr’s Golden Age detective stories to Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled Philip Marlowe novels, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals to Megan Abbott’s modern day reimagining of the femme fatale. Drawing on some of the best and most recent scholarship in the field, all of the key writers and themes of the genre are discussed in this comprehensive study of one of the most fascinating and popular of literary genres.
‘Out of the Venetian Vase’: From Golden Age to Hard-boiled
‘After These Mean Streets’: Crime Fiction and the Chandler Inheritance
James Lee Burke
James M. Cain
John Dickson Carr
Max Allan Collins
Carroll John Daly
Mignon G. Eberhart
Erle Stanley Gardner
William Campbell Gault
George V. Higgins
Dorothy B. Hughes
C. Daly King
William P. McGivern
John D. MacDonald
Dan J. Marlowe
William F. Nolan
Robert B. Parker
Edgar Allan Poe
Melville Davisson Post
Richard S. Prather
Ellery Queen (aka Dannay and Lee)
Arthur B. Reeve
Mary Roberts Rinehart
George S. Schuyler
Viola Brothers Shore
S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright)
Donald E Westlake
My review of Len Wanner’s collection of interviews with Scottish crime writers is on the Venetian Vase blog. Here’s how it starts:
Len Wanner’s book Dead Sharp (Two Ravens Press, 2011) contains nine informative, and entertaining interviews with Scottish crime writers, and a Ten Commandments for successful interviewing. In his Ten Commandments Wanner asks “Am I a good enough interviewer to tell you how to become a better one?” On the evidence of the interviews here, he is. He picks his questions well, is friendly without being gushing, presses his point to get an answer, and manages to bring a lightness and humour even to such glum and serious subjects as gender politics.
It is probably inevitable that the book begins with Ian Rankin, and that his name, and the description “Tartan Noir” should turn up more than once, even in interviews with other writers. Wanner’s interview with Rankin sets the tone for the questioning throughout the book; that is, unexpected, and revealing. The question “If Rebus is an ‘Old Testament sort of guy’, what kind of God are you?” elicits the response from Rankin that “I’m a much more forgiving God than Rebus would accept”, which tells us something about Rankin, and Rebus, but also leads to a discussion about Presbyterianism and guilt in Scottish crime writing that brings in Christopher Brookmyre and Stuart MacBride, both subjects of later interviews.
Yesterday I was researching a short piece on Melville Davisson Post, the magazine short story writer who created Uncle Abner, a Jeffersonian-era detective from the backwoods of what was then Virginia. For a time at the start of the twentieth century Post was apparently the best-paid magazine short story writer in the United States. His first creation, a crooked lawyer named Randolph Mason, drew criticism because many people felt his techniques for evading justice would give the criminal fraternity ideas. In fact Post, who started out as a lawyer, used the Randolph Mason stories to expose loopholes in the law. Here are a few examples of his stories.
So far so good I thought, but I hit problems when I tried to establish and verify Post’s birth and death dates. My first port of call was Wikipedia, which claimed he was born on April 19, 1869 and died on June 23, 1930. Of course you can’t stop with Wikipedia, so I looked at several other sources, including Webster’s Biographical Dictionary (1995 edition), the venerable Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976), which I bought in a book shop in Santa Rosa, California a few years ago, and Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941), which gives brief biographies of detective fiction writers. They disagreed. Webster’s claims he lived from 1871-1930, Steinbrunner and Penzler picked 1869-1930, while Haycraft, whose book was published only 11 years after Post’s death, says 1871-1930. Finally, I looked at Find a Grave, an excellent website which helps you do exactly that. Find a Grave listed 1871 as his birth year.
After all that I was thoroughly puzzled. I asked on Twitter to see if anyone had any ideas, but still couldn’t get confirmation. In the end I resorted to emailing Katina Peters, who lives in West Virginia and provides photographs of headstones to people researching the whereabouts of their ancestors through Find a Grave. She very kindly sent me two links to pages at http://wvculture.org which states its mission “is to identify, preserve, protect, promote, and present the ideas, arts, and artifacts of West Virginia’s heritage, building pride in our past accomplishments and confidence in our future”. It carries free online copies of birth and death records for West Virginia residents, including Melville Davisson Post. And here they are:
Note that the death certificate claims he was born in 1871; that’s probably where the error crept in. This kind of discrepancy is surprisingly common in official records and after years of working on this kind of thing I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of what we believe to be true about the past is actually invented. Curiously many sources claim Post died after falling from a horse, but whether he had a fall or not, he also had some kind of cirrhosis which his doctor cited as the primary cause of death.
Find a Grave will be updated.
Edit July 9, 2009: Image of headstone added.
Some time ago now I was sent a pamphlet entitled A College Boy: Raymond Chandler at Dulwich College, 1900 to 1905. The pamphlet was written by Calista Lucy, the archivist at Dulwich College, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death and to mark the renaming of the college’s Lower School Library the Raymond Chandler Library.
A College Boy adds quite a few new snippets of information to the early Chandler biography as well as looking at his writing from a Dulwich point of view. The college’s ledger of Entrance and Tuition Fees, for example, apparently shows that in 1900, when he enrolled at the college having just arrived in England, Chandler lived at Whitefield Lodge, 77 Alleyn Park; he and his mother are later listed in the 1901 census as living at Mount Cyra, 110 Auckland Road, Upper Norwood. As Calista Lucy points out, there is no blue plaque: there should be. There is also information about the books he borrowed from the library–Thackeray, Lamb, and Mark Twain feature–and the news that Chandler returned to Dulwich as a substitute teacher in 1910, from the start of the Michaelmas term that year through to July 1911. This was the period in which his literary ambitions were foundering through lack of money. The job apparently paid him a total of £53 6s, around a sixth of a regular Dulwich College master’s salary at the time.
Chandler the teacher is a tantalising prospect. He was probably a charismatic figure in the classroom, but I suspect there was a lot of ‘telling’ in his teaching style. He was helped into the teaching job by an old master of his, Henry ‘Teddy’ Hose (1876-1967), with whom he kept up a correspondence and friendship that included sending monthly food parcels in the years when food was rationed after World War II. He also did this for another ‘Old Alleynian’, McCulloch Christison.
Besides this kind of information, where the pamphlet is also interesting is in it’s highly suggestive speculations about the influence of the school on Chandler’s later life. For example it seems that in 1903 G.F. Watts’s painting of Sir Galahad (left) was hanging in the school library during Chandler’s time there. It also turns out that the cornflower is the school flower and Lucy makes a link here with the cornflower in the lapel of Lindsay Marriott in Farewell, My Lovely, and Eileen Wade’s cornflower blue eyes–‘a rare colour’–in The Long Good-Bye.
These connections might seem tenuous at face value, but Chandler stayed in contact with several people from the school and clearly saw his time there as a major influence on his later life. Lucy notes that Bill Townend, another Dulwich old boy, met Chandler in San Francisco in 1913 and found he was wearing a straw ‘boater’ with the cornflower blue Dulwich ribbon round the brim. This corroborates other evidence that Chandler’s first place of residence in California was the Bay Area, rather than the environs of Los Angeles. For example, Chandler’s mother Florence seems to be listed in a 1912 passenger manifest of the SS Merion with a final US destination of ‘Berkeley, San Francisco’.
Donald E. Westlake, mystery writer, died on New Year’s Eve, 2008. There are obituaries, interviews and reminiscences all over the place, but luckily for us they have been collected and collated by Sarah Weinmann at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind in her usual thorough way. Westlake wrote 100 novels under several different names, and was also a screenwriter, most famously adapting Jim Thompson’s great novel The Grifters in 1990. My favourites are the novels written as Richard Stark. Start with The Hunter (1962) which became the movie Point Blank. The writing is perfectly paced and as tough as it needs to be.
This wonderful photograph by Laurie Roberts of Westlake at his desk comes from the excellent book Behind the Mysteries: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed by Stuart Kaminsky and Photographed by Laurie Roberts. The Smith Corona typewriter is something of a Westlake trademark and seems to be more of a collaborator than a tool. Westlake was a typewriter collector.
American crime writer Horace McCoy died from a heart attack at home in Hollywood 53 years ago today on December 15th, 1955. He was 58 years old and at the end of a career in which he had worked as a journalist, written screenplays, and several important crime novels. If he is remembered at all now it is for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Midnight classics), his 1935 novel set in a dance marathon during the Depression. Dance marathons attracted people who were desperate for money, for a bed for the night, or for the chance to ‘break into pictures’. They involved couples dancing continually for weeks on end, with only short breaks of a few minutes at a time. The rules dictated that couples had to keep moving at all times, to prevent them sleeping standing up, and there were further competitions every few hours in which races or talent shows were staged. The promoters of these side shows promised a great deal, but in reality the last couple standing took away very little in return for damaging their health and being ridiculed by the audiences who came to witness the spectacle. Other popular Depression-era stunts involved people being buried alive for long periods, with the promoter taking the bulk of the ticket money.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? brought McCoy a certain amount of fame, especially in France, where his bleak, existentialist outlook made him popular; he was known for a while as ‘The American existentialist’. The quality of his writing is generally high and though he was an inconsistent performer there is a distinctive McCoy style that is direct and muscular and yet also quite experimental and challenging in a narrative sense. His other novels, include No Pockets in a Shroud (Midnight Classics) (1938), a story about an investigative journalist going after the members of a Ku Klux Klan-like organisation. Like Horses, this novel also involves a narrator on the brink of being snuffed out. His most ambitious novel is Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Midnight Classics) (1948), a story narrated by a highly persuasive and utterly ruthless serial killer. But Horses is deservedly considered his best work, if only for its directness and simplicity.
McCoy was a talented writer who never really lifted himself above his journeyman career as a script writer. It is possible that his day job, writing for Columbia, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, held back his novelistic ambitions. A longer biographical piece about McCoy is available on the website for my 100 American Crime Writers project. There will be more news about that book in the new year.
Over the last six months I’ve been working at The Reader Organisation developing their web presence and redesigning the website. The new site went live on Friday and although there is still work to do to bring all of the organisation’s projects into the one site, it’s working out pretty well so far. Take a look here. Now for a redesign of the blog.
Siobhan and I sent off the manuscript for Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language earlier this week after an intense month of re-reading, revision, collation and correction. We’ve done very little else since early January so there is a lot of catching up to do, but there are also exciting new projects to begin. It’s never easy moving on from one big project to the next but this morning I began work on the first of the entries for 100 American Crime Writers. I’m not going to be writing them in alphabetical order, but for the record I made a start this morning on ‘Paul Auster’.
Also coming up is the Literary Art of Murder conference in April, and my piece on ‘Crime and Detective Fiction for Young Readers’ for the Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction.
In case anyone is interested I am going to be writing the 100 American Crime Writers book using a very slick piece of software for writers called Scrivener. I started using it part of the way through the Cain’s book, but it seems even better suited to this kind of work. I am more impressed with it every day. If you do your writing on a Mac it’s a bargain and if you have to buy a Mac in order to try it, it’s still a bargain.