Los Angeles may have found her Virgil in an Anglo-Irish-American detective novelist named Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). The character Chandler led through L.A.’s underworld in 7 now-classic novels was Philip Marlowe, a wise-cracking private eye whose clients dragged him through the heart of the city’s darkness but whose native wits saved him, more world weary but no worse for wear. Chandler singlehandedly elevated the crime novel into literature and Hollywood adaptations of his work, starring Bogey, Mitchum and others, set the standard for American film noir.
Sex in terms of horse racing. That’s what socialite Vivian Rutledge and private detective Philip Marlowe discuss at a swanky, dimly-lit Los Angles nightclub in Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of the hard-boiled classic, The Big Sleep. Portrayed on the silver screen by Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Hollywood’s hottest romantic team, these characters concocted by legendary writer Raymond Chandler crackle with sexual tension. The infamous Bogart-Bacall chemistry was like pouring gasoline over the dialogue and lighting a cigarette a few inches away, creating an inferno of sexual innuendo so blatant that it’s amazing it got past the censors in 1946.
At the time of the film’s debut, Chandler had written dozens of short stories, several novels, and worked on two Academy Award-nominated screenplays (Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia.) Prior to Chandler, detective fiction as a genre hadn’t been taken seriously as literature by the public or the critics. With this one character—private eye Philip Marlowe—Chandler changed the minds of a nation.
Alfred Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in the summer of 1888, the son of Quaker Anglo-Irish parents. His alcoholic father deserted the family when Chandler was seven, the trauma from which had a lasting impact; he would be prone to bouts of depression for the duration of his life. Chandler’s mother, Florence, moved to London with her small son, where her family lived and where she could ensure that Chandler, the apple of her eye, would receive first-class schooling.
Chandler attended Dulwich College, receiving a classical education which he later cited as crucial to his development as a writer of hard-boiled detective stories that also were believably streetwise. “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular, largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek,” he explained. He saw American slang as a language unto itself, and not the uncouth, uneducated babblings of the lower classes, as others did.
His early literary efforts existed, somewhat ironically, in the realm of poetry: “My first poem was composed at the age of 19, on a Sunday, in the bathroom…I am fortunate in not possessing a copy,” Chandler wryly wrote, years later. His poetic style was intensely romantic, (“All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart”) and while poems such as “The Perfect Knight” and “The Fairy King” were published, they did not meet with success, as the market for such work had been rather heavily saturated since Victorian days.
He moved out of the realm of poesy and into British civil service, which he disliked intensely. When he was 24, he returned to America, the land of his birth, to survey the opportunities there. He held a succession of jobs ranging from the menial (farm laborer) to the weird (stringing tennis rackets) until he took a course in book-keeping and found that he had a keen aptitude for numbers and business.
Then came a World War. Chandler enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917 and saw active combat in France. When, after 40 million casualties, the armistice was finally signed, he returned to America, where he used his newly found knack for business to rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles-based Dabney Oil Company. (When he began to write novels some years later, they would be invariably set in L.A.)
In 1924, Chandler married Pearl Eugenia “Cissy” Pascal, a New Yorker 18 years his senior. Cissy knocked ten years off her age on the marriage certificate, and it’s uncertain whether she ever revealed to Chandler exactly how much older she was. By all accounts, it wouldn’t have mattered. Cissy was a hyper-intelligent, witty, sensuous beauty, and Chandler was very much in love. Before the effects of the excessive alcohol consumption, which would eventually kill him, took hold, Chandler possessed rugged good looks. He had dark, wavy hair, a firm mouth, an intense, brown-eyed stare, and wore wire-rimmed specs.
Life with Chandler was no sunshine-and-roses existence: like his father before him, he drank. He also pursued extramarital affairs with the energy of Mick Jagger, and would occasionally, in a melodramatic or depressive mood, threaten suicide. But Cissy had spent a wild youth (part of which provided the inspiration for the character of Carmen Sternwood, a wayward debutante who takes opium and poses for cheesecake photos in The Big Sleep) and she dealt stoically with his constant misbehavior. Throughout the duration of their marriage, she remained his idol and his greatest support.
When his alcoholism caused him to lose his posh job with Dabney Oil Co., Chandler circled back to writing as a means of bread winning. His first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”, was published in the pulp mystery magazine Black Mask in 1933. It was through Black Mask that Chandler had come to appreciate the genre of crime fiction: he found the writing the magazine published to be “forceful and honest,” and the magazine was cheap enough that even while out of work and pinching pennies, he could afford to buy it. He studied pulp fiction long and hard. Between 1933 and 1938 he was to pen 21 detective tales for Black Mask, during which time he honed his style and began work on his most famous creation, private investigator Philip Marlowe.
His first novel—and the world’s introduction to Philip Marlowe—arrived in the form of The Big Sleep, published in 1939. It found more readers abroad than in America, but Howard Hawks’ 1946 film was to make the novel a bestseller seven years after its debut. Marlowe’s personality is perhaps best revealed in a sample of dialogue from The Big Sleep, in which the detective talks back to the daughter of a client trying to bamboozle him:
“I’m not crazy about your manners,” I said. “I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross examine me.”
Chandler wrote seven novels starring Marlowe, all of which are now considered cornerstones of classic crime fiction: The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; The High Window; The Lady in the Lake (another nod to Arthurian legend); The Little Sister; The Long Goodbye; and Playback. All but Payback have been adapted by Hollywood as feature films.
He described the persona of his signature detective in his manifesto, The Simple Art of Murder: “…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…He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin…”
There was an unusual chivalry in Chandler’s characters that captured the public imagination. Chandler’s classical education meant that Arthurian legend loomed large even in tales of the “mean streets,” of inner-city America. However, his portrayal of L.A. was anything but a fairy tale. Chandler focused on its seedy criminal underbelly, dubbing the city, “…a tired old whore.”
While most of his contemporaries at Black Mask churned out pulp tales at a hectic pace, Chandler wrote his stories slowly and deliberately, taking great care to fine-tune the mechanics of each line. His love of a colorful simile knew no limits. (For example: “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.”)
Dr. Nathan Ashman, crime lecturer at the University of East Anglia, describes the Marlowe novels as, “…Frankenstein texts, created by merging together previously published short stories. In fact, when developing his craft, he would try to rewrite his favorite stories, just so he could get a feel for plot, structure, and pace. I think Chandler’s influence as stylist has been felt more latterly, as he has come to embody a certain wry cynicism so typical of the world weary, uber masculine private eye.”
Of the many movies that portray Philip Marlowe, two stand out: Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Set 27 years apart, the films not only show different versions of Los Angeles, but different versions of Marlowe; the detective’s mood is inseparable from the zeitgeist of his town. In 1946, Bogart played a cool, self-assured Marlowe; in 1973, Gould played a man teetering on the brink. Gould’s Marlowe is unkempt, and louche; he mumbles constantly, chain-smokes, strikes matches on walls and spends a large portion of the time he is not hunting down a murderer searching for his lost cat. His version of L.A. had soured beyond that of Chandler’s experience. There was a pervasive fear of violence and a constant unease that had not been present before the Tate-LaBianca murders and would not fade again. All that jacaranda could be hiding anything–or anyone.
In 1954, Cissy died, and Chandler began a freefall descent into alcoholism. Despite having a large group of friends, he considered himself to be a spiritually homeless wanderer, especially after losing Cissy. He couldn’t stay away from California or England, living with a foot on each continent. At the couple’s bungalow in the ritzy La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego County, he moved into Cissy’s old bedroom, where he often sat up all night, alone, listening to blues records. In the final years of his life, he suffered a string of illnesses, but wrote in a letter that it was only the fact that he had “no home,” (alluding to the grounding comfort Cissy’s companionship had provided) that he was so physically depleted.
A year before his death, Chandler was interviewed on a BBC radio program by his old friend Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond spy novels. Chandler’s whiskey-slurred voice, thick as a milkshake, struggles through an hour of literate but nearly unintelligible answers. It is the only recording of his voice extant. Here is the opening section from that hour-long interview:
He died in 1959, aged 70, his health having deteriorated progressively ever since Cissy’s death five years prior. In his depressed state, Chandler had forgotten to have Cissy’s ashes interred; they spent 57 years in a storage vault before finally being buried alongside Chandler’s in 2011. The couple’s shared gravestone features a line from The Big Sleep: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”
W.H. Auden once said, “Raymond Chandler’s powerful books should be read and judged, not as escape literature but as works of art.” It’s fitting that Chandler is now remembered as the writer whose immaculate prose ushered crime fiction into a literary classification of its own.