This biographical article was written in 2010 as a contribution to Steven Powell’s 100 American Crime Writers, Palgrave 2012. Please note that this is an unedited version of the article that appears in the book.
“Raymond Chandler” by Chris Routledge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Chandler, Raymond Thornton (b. 23 July, 1888, in Chicago d. 26 March, 1959); married Cissy Pascal, 1924. Among the most admired and influential of all American crime and detective fiction writers, Chandler is best known for the seven novels he completed between 1939 and 1958, all of which are set in Los Angeles, featuring the private detective Philip Marlowe. The novels are celebrated for their sharp dialogue, evocative descriptive passages, their humour, and style. They have also proved successful as film adaptations, including most notably The Big Sleep (1946) directed by Howard Hawks. Chandler championed the idea that readers of crime and detective fiction might be interested in literary qualities besides plot and action. His style is so distinctive that similar writing is described as “Chandleresque”. His work has been widely adapted to radio and television, and re-written in other forms. The novels themselves helped establish Los Angeles as the archetypal nightmare city of the twentieth century.
Born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, Raymond Chandler was the only child of Florence (Thornton) Chandler and Maurice Chandler. His mother was born in Waterford, Ireland around 1863; his father was born in 1859, in Pennsylvania, and is believed to have been an engineer on the Union Pacific railroad. They married in 1887, but Maurice drank heavily, and worked away from home a lot; by 1895 they were separated. School records show that the Chandlers moved frequently between Chicago and Plattsmouth, Nebraska, where the boy attended the East Fourth Ward School in 1895 and 1896. Chandler and his mother are recorded in the US census in Plattsmouth in 1900. In June that year they sailed out of Montreal for Liverpool and from there they made their way to London, where his mother set up home in Upper Norwood with his grandmother and an unmarried aunt, Ethel. Chandler’s mother was not especially welcome in London, and the boy became protective of her.
In the autumn of 1900 Chandler began as a day pupil at Dulwich College, a private school in South London, where he followed both P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forrester as a pupil. He was a talented pupil, but his uncle Ernest, who had paid for him to attend the school, would not pay for him to go to university. Instead he prepared to enter the civil service, and travelled in France and Germany, studying languages. In 1907 he became naturalised as a British subject and took his civil service examinations, placing third out of six hundred applicants. He began work at the Admiralty soon afterwards.
Biographer Frank MacShane suggests that Chandler did not have the temperament for the civil service. He began publishing poetry in the old-fashioned style he had learned at school, then left the Admiralty to work as a reporter on the Daily Express. When that did not work out he moved to the Westminster Gazette and also wrote reviews for The Academy. None of this was enough for him to earn a living, and in 1912 he borrowed £500 from his uncle and left for the United States. He was also expected to take responsibility for his mother, and according to immigration records he sponsored her arrival in the United States in December that year. He later claimed to have paid off his ‘irate’ uncle in full at six percent interest.
Los Angeles, War, and the Oil Business
Chandler made his way to San Francisco and by 1912 he was taking a nightschool course in bookkeeping. With the help of Warren Lloyd, a lawyer he had met and befriended during his voyage to the United States, he found a job at the Los Angeles Creamery. The Lloyd family became an important part of Chandler’s life and it was at one of their cultural evenings that he met Cissy Pascal, then married to the pianist Julian Pascal. She later became his wife.
By 1917 Chandler and his mother were living together in Santa Barbara, where Chandler was employed at the local branch of the creamery. He signed his United States draft registration card on June 17th, claiming exemption from the draft ‘on account mother’—he told friends he had poor eyesight—and in August he joined the Canadian army. Perhaps he preferred to fight in a British uniform, but more likely, MacShane surmises, it was because the Canadians paid his mother a severance allowance. He served in France and was later the sole survivor of an artillery attack on his trench, an episode he later wrote up in a sketch called ‘Trench Raid’ and more indirectly in his 1953 novel The Long Goodbye.
After a brief period in the newly formed Royal Air Force, Chandler returned to Los Angeles in 1919 to resume his friendship with the Lloyds and the Pascals. Soon Chandler and Cissy Pascal were in love. She divorced Julian Pascal, but she did not marry Chandler until February 6th, 1924, four months after the death of his mother. Cissy gave her age as 43, but she was in fact ten years older.
With the help of the Lloyds, Chandler took a job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate and became part of the California oil boom of the 1920s. He was a talented auditor and a brilliant office manager, but his personal life was a mess, and his relationship with Cissy, as she approached the age of 60, became difficult. Chandler attended social events alone, he drank heavily, and had affairs with women from the office. In February 1930, they separated. It is unclear how long they remained apart, but by 1932, when he was finally fired from his job, Cissy’s health was deteriorating. Perhaps because of that, she and Chandler were together again.
Out of work in the Great Depression, aged 44, and with very little money, Chandler reinvented himself as a writer. He taught himself to write fiction by imitating others, including Ernest Hemingway and Erle Stanley Gardner, whose stories he rewrote in order to understand how they worked. Chandler had been earning around $1000 a month as far back the early 1920s and must have felt very insecure in these new circumstances, but he persevered. He was supported by Paul Lloyd, who paid him $100 a month in his early years as a writer. His first published story was called ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,’ and appeared in Black Mask magazine in December 1933. It had taken five months to write and earned him $180.
At the time, Black Mask editor Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw was encouraging a style of writing that was clear and realistic. He wanted stories with developed human characters. Chandler was published alongside writers such as Gardner, Horace McCoy, W.T. Ballard, and Norbert Davis, and at Black Mask he was among the most valuable of editor Shaw’s regular contributors. He introduced description and style to a genre that favoured plot, and sensation, and succeeded in changing the expectations, not only of the audience, but of Shaw himself. In a period of around ten years he published 22 stories in magazines including Black Mask and Dime Detective Magazine. By 1938, however, Chandler was outgrowing the possibilities offered by the pulp magazines and had begun writing his first novel, The Big Sleep.
In ‘The Simple Art of Murder,’ which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (December 1944) and was later anthologised, Chandler published his manifesto for the tough fictional private eye, arguing, famously that ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything.’ Chandler’s own detective hero, Philip Marlowe, features in all seven of his completed novels, and the one he didn’t finish, Poodle Springs.
Marlowe has his origins in the heroes of Chandler’s early stories: characters with names that reference England and English literature, such as Ted Malvern, a private eye named Mallory, and a narcotics-squad undercover agent called Pete Anglich. One of the opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep, which was published when Chandler was 51 years old, establishes Marlowe’s worldview and attitude:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of the helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Where many hard-boiled detective heroes emerged as a cynical, urbanised version of the Western hero, Marlowe owes many of his qualities to the knights of English Romance literature. He is honest, and honourable, even when it does him no good, while his attitude to women is courtly, and protective. Marlowe’s characterisation as a knight-detective extends from his name, to the plots of the novels themselves, in which he must uncover a truth which is perhaps nothing to do with the crime that appears to be central to the plot. Even the titles of the novels have a ring of Romance about them, though only one, The Lady in the Lake (1943), makes direct reference to a specific tale.
Marlowe’s moral sense is what sets him apart from most of the other characters he encounters. There are others whom he trusts in some limited way, including Bernie Ohls, the police detective in The Big Sleep, but on the whole Marlowe is alone, and resistant. In The Long Goodbye (1953), the novel in which, arguably, Marlowe’s position is most marginalised, and threatened, he spends 56 hours in jail because he refuses to betray the confidence of a client, partly because to do so would be bad for business, but also because of the way he is treated by the police. He tells them “I was balanced on a knife edge and you could have swung me either way. But you had to abuse me, throw coffee in my face, and use your fists on me … From now on I wouldn’t tell you the time from the clock on your own wall.”
The Big Sleep (1939) is probably Chandler’s best known novel, and is the one that established his reputation as a hard-boiled novelist with a new approach to the genre. Chandler drew on his experience as a writer of pulp short stories, blending together several early works, in particular ‘Killer in the Rain’ (1935), and ‘The Curtain’ (1936) to create the longer narrative. The novel’s plot is notoriously complex, but is only part of what makes it worth reading. The character and voice of Marlowe, and the depiction of Los Angeles as a city of bright modernity, and dark underlying corruption, are now familiar, but Chandler’s analysis extends to environmental destruction, and the increasingly pervasive influence of drugs and pornography. In later novels, in particular The Long Goodbye (1953), Chandler unpicks the effects of consumerism and moral relativism.
Chandler followed The Big Sleep with Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and then The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). Chandler was not a fast writer, and these early novels drew extensively on previously published stories, and notes. He kept records of the material he had used in each novel, even going so far as to make lists of similes, which he then ticked off as he used them. His vivid descriptive passages brought him a readership beyond the regular audience for hard-boiled writing. He was admired by writers as diverse as W.H.Auden, and Ian Fleming, the latter singling out his dialogue for special praise. The distinctiveness of Chandler’s prose, in particular his use of simile and metaphor, took him beyond the general run of crime writing and into a more literary arena. Examples such as “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” and, describing “Moose” Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely: “he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of Angel food,” have become known as ‘Chandlerisms’.
The Little Sister (1949) marks a shift in Chandler’s ambition as a novelist. Chandler was often criticised for writing crime fiction when he could be doing something more literary, and by implication, more important. But it was not until The Long Goodbye, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1955, that Chandler broke free of his roots in the pulps, creating a detective novel that is among the most ambitious of its time.
The Long Goodbye was written under difficult circumstances. Chandler himself was struggling with alcohol, and Cissy was elderly, and unwell. Nevertheless, the story, of the disappearance of Terry Lennox, and Marlowe’s dealings with the drunken writer, Roger Wade, takes place alongside Marlowe’s own personal fragmentation, and increasing weariness. Marlowe’s realisation that he has become an anachronism in a culture where identity and morality have become relativistic and contingent, leads to his own “sell out” at the end of the seventh novel Playback (1958), and his return in the unfinished Poodle Springs Story, driving a Cadillac belonging to his rich wife. Robert Altman’s 1973 film adaptation of The Long Goodbye emphasises Marlowe’s otherworldliness by setting the story in contemporary LA, but making Marlowe a typical private eye from the Film Noir era.
Chandler’s relationship with Hollywood is twofold. Firstly, all of the novels except Playback (1958) have been adapted for film, most notably The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And secondly, Chandler himself worked as a screenwriter, adapting the works of others. Hawks’s The Big Sleep has become one of the landmark movies of the Film Noir era, and stands with The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942), as one of the highlights of Bogart’s career. Later adaptations had mixed success. Robert Mitchum starred as Marlowe in adaptations of Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and The Big Sleep (1978), while Elliot Gould played the detective in Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye (1973).
Chandler’s period working as a screenwriter coincided with his developing alcoholism. Though the movies he worked on were successful, both cinematically, and at the box office, his experience was not a happy one. Chandler’s time in Hollywood began with Double Indemnity (1944), an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel of the same name. Chandler didn’t like the book, and didn’t like Billy Wilder, the director. He described the experience as “agonizing”. The Blue Dahlia (1946), based on an original screenplay by Chandler, was nominated for an Oscar and was a huge success, but it too had a difficult gestation. Chandler finished the film running on a combination of booze and coffee, supported by a relay team of secretaries who typed up his dictation. Chandler’s final film, working alongside Alfred Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train (1951), resulted in him falling out with the director. Very little of his original work remains in the movie, but by then ‘Raymond Chandler’ was a bankable name, and it remained on the credits.
After Cissy’s death on 12 December, 1954, Chandler spent a considerable amount of time in London, where he was something of a literary celebrity. In 1956 he reasserted his American citizenship when the British authorities demanded that he should pay British taxes, but he was increasingly erratic, depressed, and drunk much of the time, including during an interview with Ian Fleming, recorded by the BBC. He had plans for a play, a cookbook, and other writing projects, but he returned to La Jolla embroiled in personal and financial troubles. In 1959, by then an alcoholic wreck, Chandler proposed marriage to Helga Greene. Though she accepted, they never married, and Chandler died from pneumonia at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, on 26 March, 1959. He was buried four days later at Mount Hope State Cemetery, San Diego.
Sources and Further Reading
Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1950.
Hamilton, Ian. Writers in Hollywood. London: Heinemann, 1990.
Hiney, Tom. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. London: Random House, 1997.
Hiney, Tom, and Frank MacShane (eds.). The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction, 1909-1959. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.
Latker, Loren. Shamus Town. Online http://homepage.mac.com/llatker/ (accessed November 2010).
McShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. London: Jonathan Cape, 1976.
Van Dover, J.K. (Ed.). The Critical Response to Raymond Chandler. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Williams, Tom. Raymond Chandler, A Life. London: Aurum Press, 2012.
Acknowledgement is due to Loren Latker, for his work uncovering school records, the ‘memorandum of agreement’ between Chandler and Cissy, and other details of Chandler’s early life which do not appear in the two early biographies. Tom Williams’s fine biography was published in 2012, after this essay appeared in 100 American Crime Writers.
By Chris Routledge
“Raymond Chandler” by Chris Routledge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License