If you want to become a skilled crime writer, read the best. And among the best is Raymond Chandler, who wrote the likes of The Big Sleep (1938), and Farewell, My Lovely (1949).
But who was this shy, guarded man? Was he English? Or American? Was he his fictional hero, Phillip Marlowe? Was he all of the above, or none?
That’s the fascination of Chandler: he’s every bit as elusive as his celebrated detective hero, Phillip Marlowe. But what binds author and protagonist together? For that answer, we have to delve gingerly into Chandler’s past.
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois in the year 1888, to an Irish mother and American father, who left the family when Chandler was grade-school age. Because of this abandonment, Chandler formed a life-long sense of protection toward this mother, Florence, which carried over not only into his later marriage with Cissy Pascal in 1924, but onto his fictional female characters.
His mother returned to Ireland soon after her husband’s abandonment, and eventually placed Chandler in a public school (“private” in American), Dulwich College, London. Unlike the endless sad tales we read in British biographies about hideous experiences in England’s public schools, Chandler, on the contrary, was happy at Dulwich and performed well there. With the encouragement of a kindly, caring headmaster, Chandler decided he wanted to become a writer — not a crime writer, mind you, but a poet. Later, he would join the ranks of untold dozens of successful prose authors who had originally launched their careers in poetry.
After Dulwich, Chandler desperately wanted to go on to Cambridge University, but the uncle who was bank rolling him refused to pay the tuition, having already put him through Dulwich. Chandler was devastated. To sweeten that pot a bit, uncle offered to send him on a “tour” of the continent, where he learned to improve his German and French to prepare the aspiring poet for a career in British civil service. There was only one catch: Chandler was an American, and to work in civil service he had to become a British citizen, which he did in 1907. What am I? he puzzled through the years. American? British? Or neither? Later in life, Raymond Chandler would refer to himself as, “A man without a country.” Yet, this diversity would serve him well when he meets up with Phillip Marlowe.
Weary of civil service, Chandler upped sticks and moved back to America, eventually landing in Los Angeles in 1913, where he first stayed with friends. Ever the good son, he invited his mother to join him in California, and she did.
At this point in his life, Chandler was still more British than American. Yet, he quickly became reacquainted with the American language, and the delicious possibilities of creating uniquely American stories. Even today, no writer is more associated with American crime fiction than Chandler, the British educated child and eventual citizen who finally found his way back to the land of his birth.
But Chandler’s world was tainted by the traumas of the abuse he witnessed his father inflicting upon his mother, thus his deep feelings of protectiveness toward Florence. These sensibilities find their way into Phillip Marlowe’s dark and seedy urban setting.
According to biographer Tom Williams, Chandler didn’t simply want to depict a murder, but a world in which such a thing could happen. This was a world populated by thugs, murderers, numbers runners, petty robbers, bootleggers, and money launderers. A world where no one, not even Marlowe, can walk safely down that dark street.
Such a world requires a hero — the person who protects the unprotected. For Chandler, that hero is Marlowe. In the world I create in my crime novels, that hero is my protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Chandra, of New Scotland Yard. I don’t mind admitting that I owe more than a little debt to Mr. Marlowe who, if not precisely the father of Mick Chandra, is at least his benevolent uncle.
Down these mean streets a hero must venture, but the hero is NOT mean, nor is he/she tarnished or afraid. Even in the “hard boiled” school of detective novels, he/she must be a person of HONOR — pure, good, able to resist temptation.
Several of Chandler’s books were turned into successful movies. Besides The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely were Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Lady of the Lake (1944), and Strangers on the Train (screenplay of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, 1951).
Despite the fact that his wife, Cissy, was eighteen years his senior, she and Chandler enjoyed a happy, if not entirely tranquil, marriage. After years of heavy drinking and smoking, Raymond Chandler died in 1959 at age 71. I wonder: Has he met up with Phillip Marlowe, and are the two of them walking the mean streets looking for dragons to slay?
If you’ve not read his work and you love crime fiction, run, don’t walk to your nearest library and take out every Chandler book you can get you hands on. And if you have read him, read him again.
Rebecca Yount is the author of the Mick Chandra mystery series, available in e-book format. You can reach her at: Rebecca@RebeccaYount.com, or Google her at: Rebecca Yount author. You can also tweet her at: Yount70.