Raymond Chandler 1888–1959

Chandler was born in Chicago. On both sides of his parentage he could claim Irish-Quaker extraction. His father Maurice was a railway engineer and a drunk who soon drifted away, never to be known by his only child. Chandler’s mother, Florence, was resourceful in the face of this breakdown. Chandler would always need such women in his life. Florence emigrated with young ‘Ray’ to England where she had relatives.

Raymond’s rich English uncle Edward took an interest in her clever little boy. His way was paid through Dulwich College, the public school, in south London. The five years he spent there were formative. Chandler had the old school tie tattooed on his soul for life. He won prizes and took full advantage of the ‘classic’ education offered him. There was no money for him to go to university. Aged sixteen, he left Dulwich and entered the Civil Service.

Not a single letter of Chandler’s before 1937 survives or much other documentary record. But the known facts record he left his clerical job at the Admiralty. Not for Raymond Chandler a pin-striped future. For a while he scraped a living as a journalist and wrote reams of (feeble) poetry in his spare time. In 1912 he returned to America and took a succession of clerking jobs in small towns before ending up in California. ‘Why?’ he was once asked. ‘Everyone does,’ he replied. In San Francisco, at a very low point, he worked as a tennis-racquet stringer at a measly $12.50 a week. A clerical position with an ice-cream firm in Los Angeles furnished enough to rent an apartment. 

Possessed of superb manners, cultivated, interestingly ‘foreign’, and – at this stage of his life – good-looking, Chandler was taken up by well-off friends. He brought his mother over to live with him. Chandler stuck with the creamery for three years and his mother for life. It was now 1917 and he was twenty-eight. Enthused by the war, in which so many of his ‘fellow’ Englishmen were dying, he decided to join in the fight. America was not recruiting so he went north to Canada to join up. 

Chandler saw action in France and sustained a serious head wound. Honourably discharged, he rejoined his mother and went back to work in the creamery. At this period there entered the second woman in his life, Pearl Eugenie Pascal. The wife of a concert pianist (her second marriage), in the throes of a divorce, ‘Cissy’, as everyone called her, was a woman of the world. She was old enough (by eighteen years) to be Chandler’s mother. But he had one already, and she disapproved. Any formal union was put on ice for four years until Florence died. 

Cissy had raised Chandler’s sights beyond the creamery. As the roaring twenties took off, Los Angeles was a city of opportunity.  Chandler went into the oil business and shot to the top. Within a couple of years he was earning a grand a month. Other things fell neatly into place. Florence died in 1924 and within days Chandler was able to marry Cissy. There would never, until many years later, be anything that could be called a home for the couple: just apartments, hotels, and, of course, no children. He loved the patter of little feet, Chandler said – running in the opposite direction. As he rose up the executive ladder boozing, absenteeism and misconduct with secretaries led to Chandler’s being fired in 1932. It coincided with the Depression and what would be decades of semi-invalidism for the fast-ageing Cissy.

For reasons that are mysterious, Chandler decided, close on forty-five, to give up drink and become a professional writer. He cocooned himself in cheap lodgings with Cissy, who seems, nobly, to have gone along with a suddenly hard life. For several years Chandler imposed a gruelling writer’s apprenticeship on himself. He chose crime writing, he said, because it was ‘honest’.  He had set his sights on Black Mask, the magazine that had launched Dashiell Hammett, pioneering in its pages ‘hardboiled’ detective fiction and a classier product than was purveyed in the pulps. 

Chandler realised there was space in this new crime fiction genre to establish a whole new style. He cultivated a specialism in the Los Angeles-based ‘Private Eye’ – famously Philip Marlowe, a direct descendant of Hammett’s Sam Spade. What Chandler perfected was voice. His favoured narrative mode is autobiographical – the tone is laconic, wise cracking, seen-it-all, reminiscential.

Having perfected his instrument in Black Mask Chandler broke into full-length fiction with The Big Sleep. The book was taken by a class publisher, Knopf, and sold reasonably.  Chandler and Cissy had been lifted from years of penury by his book (particularly paperback) royalties but re-entered the ranks of the seriously rich when Hollywood discovered Chandler. More particularly, the director Billy Wilder discovered him after reading The High Window (1942). Chandler had a hand in Wilder’s masterpiece, Double Indemnity and Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train.

Hollywood, subsidiary rights, and radio franchise (a medium particularly congenial with Chandler’s style) meant that he would never, after 1945, be poor again. But the stress at working in Hollywood hothouse tipped him off the wagon. He would be alcoholic until the end of his life. Cissy was now closing on her seventies and often seriously unwell. Chandler’s own health was increasingly poor. He would grind out two more Marlowes – The Little Sister (1949) and the aptly named The Long Good-Bye (1953). Neither ranks with his best early work. 

Chandler’s fiction was always better thought of in his other home country, England, and positively revered by the French, who loved noir Americain. American critical opinion remained largely unimpressed. Cissy died in 1954 – she was eighty-four.  Keeping her alive had been Chandler’s noblest achievement. With her gone, he fell apart. 

In 1955 he returned to England and enjoyed his fame there (‘in England,’ he said, ‘I am an author’). He made a drunken fool of himself with a succession of women.  A few pieces of writing sputtered out along with a stream of lonely long lovely letters to anyone whose address he happened to have in his address book. They were written in his long insomniac nights when all that comforted him was his typewriter and his extraordinary gift with words. He died exhausted in hospital in La Jolla, California. 

One knows far too much about the foolish, drink-addled Chandler of the 1950s and far too little about the first fifty years of his life. The big question remains unanswered: why, in the mid-1930s, did he turn to writing crime novels? And how did this man – whose personal life is so pathetic – create such wonderful crime novels?

© John Sutherland 2012