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Chandler, Raymond (1888-1959)

Chandler, Raymond (1888-1959)

Raymond Thornton Chandler started writing fiction in middle-age, out of economic necessity, after being fired from his job. Despite his late start and relatively brief career, Chandler's influence on detective fiction was seminal. He and fellow writer Dashiell Hammett generally are seen as the Romulus and Remus of the hard-boiled detective subgenre. Hammett's experience as a Pinkerton detective provided him with material very different from that of the genteel murder mystery imported from England. Chandler, who cut his teeth on the Black Mask school of "tough-guy" fiction, from the outset shunned the classical mystery for a type of story truer to the violent realities of twentieth-century American life. As he said, his interest was in getting "murder away from the upper classes, the weekend house party and the vicar's rose garden, and back to the people who are really good at it."

Chandler's education and upbringing both hindered and spurred his writing, for he came to the American language and culture as a stranger. Although born in Chicago in 1888, at the age of seven he was taken to London by his Anglo-Irish mother and raised there. After a classical education in a public school, Chandler worked as a civil servant and as a literary journalist, finding no real success in either field. In 1912, on money borrowed from an uncle, he returned to the United States, eventually reaching California with no prospects but, in his words, "with a beautiful wardrobe and a public school accent." For several years he worked at menial jobs, then became a bookkeeper. In 1917, he joined the Canadian Army and served as a platoon commander in France. After the war, he began to work in the oil business and rapidly rose to top-level management positions. In the 1920s, his drinking and womanizing grew steadily worse, until his immoderation, along with the Great Depression, finally cost him his job in 1932.

As a young man in London, Chandler had spent three years working as a literary journalist and publishing romantic, Victorian-style poetry on the side. Now, with only enough savings to last a year or two, he turned back to writing in an attempt to provide a living for his wife and himself. Initially, his literary sophistication inhibited his attempts to write pulp fiction; however, he persevered through an arduous apprenticeship and ultimately succeeded not only in writing critically acclaimed commercial fiction but also in transcending the genre. By the time of his death, Chandler had become a prominent American novelist.

Chandler published his first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," in the December 1933 issue of Black Mask. Under the editorship of Joseph Shaw, it had emerged as the predominant pulp magazine. Shaw promoted "hard-boiled" fiction in the Hammett mode, and Chandler quickly became one of Shaw's favorite contributors, publishing nearly two dozen stories in Black Mask between 1933 and 1941. Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, was immediately compared to the work of Dashiell Hammett and James Cain by critics, who hailed Chandler as an exciting new presence in detective fiction. His second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, appeared in 1940, followed by novels The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister (1949), The Long Good-bye (1954), and Playback (1958). Chandler's collection of short stories, The Simple Art of Murder, contains, in addition to twelve pulp stories, an important and oft-quoted essay on detective fiction.

Like his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, Chandler's impact on American literature was fueled by his interest in style. His English upbringing caused him to experience American English as a half-foreign, fascinating language; and few American writers, with the possible exceptions of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, ever thought more carefully about or cared more for the American language. Chandler originated a terse, objective, colloquial style which has had a vital influence on succeeding mystery writers, as well as on mainstream literary writers, and even on Latin American authors such as Hiber Conteris and Manuel Puig. Chandler skillfully cultivated a subtle prose style that is actually literary while appearing to be plain and colloquial. The hallmark of this style is the witty, exaggerated simile. These similes often appear in the wise-cracks of Chandler's hero, Philip Marlowe; the effect being to add color to the dialogue and to emphasize Marlowe's rugged individualism. Chandler's irreverent, wise-cracking private detective set the tone for many of the hardboiled heroes who followed, such as Jim Rockford of television's The Rockford Files and Spenser, the protagonist of Robert B. Parker's novels.

Just as Chandler's style is only superficially objective, becoming subjective in its impressionistic realization of Marlowe's mind and emotions, Chandler's fiction is hard-boiled only on the surface. Marlowe never becomes as violent or as tough-minded as did some of his predecessors, such as Hammett's Continental Op. In fact, Marlowe is sometimes, in the words of James Sandoe, "soft-boiled." Lonely, disillusioned, depressive, Marlowe is yet somehow optimistic and willing to fight injustice at substantial personal cost. Chandler saw his hero as a crusading, but rather cynical, working-class knight who struggles against overwhelming odds to help the powerless and downtrodden. Marlowe maintains his chivalrous code in the face of constant temptation and intimidation; his integrity is absolute, his honesty paramount. Thus he manages to achieve some justice in a corrupt, unjust world.

This archetypal theme places Chandler in the mainstream of American fiction. The courageous man of action, the rugged individualist who performs heroic deeds out of a sense of duty, has been a staple of American literature since the early days of the nation. This quintessential American hero originated in regional fiction, such as James Fennimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales, and moved westward with the frontier, appearing in many guises. The tough hero was further developed by the dime novelists of the nineteenth century and by early-twentieth-century progenitors of the Western genre. American detective story writers found a distinctly American hero waiting for them to adapt to the hard-boiled sub-genre.

Another theme prevalent in Chandler's work is the failure of the American Dream. For Chandler, the crime and violence rampant in newspaper headlines was rooted in the materialism of American life. In their desperate grasping, Americans often stooped to extreme and even unlawful measures. Chandler himself was not immune to the lure of the greenback. He became an established Hollywood screenwriter, though temperamentally unsuited to the collaborative work. Notable among his film work is his and Billy Wilder's 1943 adaptation for the screen of James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity. Filmed by Paramount, the movie received an Academy Award nomination for best script. The voice-over narration Chandler devised for Double Indemnity became a convention of film noir. For Chandler, the voice-over narration, so like the cynical, ironical voice of his Marlowe, must have seemed natural.

After the death of Chandler's beloved wife Cissy in 1954, he entered a period of alcoholic and professional decline that continued until his death in 1959. Like his hero, Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler lived and died a lonely and sad man. But his contribution to literature is significant, and his work continues to give pleasure to his many readers.

—Rick Lott

Further Reading:

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Raymond Chandler: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.

Durham, Philip. Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Gardiner, Dorothy, and Katherine Sorley Walker, editors. Raymond Chandler Speaking. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York, Dutton, 1976.

Marling, William. The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1995.

——. Raymond Chandler. Boston, Twayne, 1986.

Speir, Jerry. Raymond Chandler. New York, Ungar, 1981.

Van Dover, J.K. The Critical Response to Raymond Chandler. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995.

Wolfe, Peter. Something More Than Night: The Case of Raymond Chandler. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985.

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