Friday, November 4, 2016

The Life of Raymond Chandler

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler
by Tom Williams
Chicago Review Press
9781613736784 - 384 pages
January 2012

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Was Raymond Chandler, the author who invented detective Phillip Marlowe, as interesting as his creation? This question was on my mind when I began reading A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

Born in Chicago on July 23rd, 1888 to Maurice and Florence Chandler, young Raymond had a troubled childhood. His father was an alcoholic, setting the stage for Chandler’s own struggles with alcoholism, and he abandoned the family early on. Left to their own devices, Florence and Raymond moved from Chicago and eventually settled in England where Chandler received a good education at Dulwich. Unfortunately he could not secure the funds to go to college but this did not stop him in his pursuit of a literary career. At first he made an earnest attempt at being a poet but failed miserably. After living in France, he returned to London to fetch his mother and traveled across the pond then across the continent to Los Angeles. Williams notes, “he left London as a failed British writer and arrived in America as a new man.”

Although Chandler always thought of himself as a Brit, it was his life in California that set things in motion for this new stage of his life and career. But those early days in Los Angeles were not devoted to writing. He fought in WWI by way of Canada because he could not enlist through either the US or England. When he came back from the war he devoted himself to his mother Florence. He met the woman who would be the love of his life, Cissy. Unfortunately his mother disapproved of the union and Chandler waited until Florence died before marrying Cissy. Chandler was 35 and Cissy was 53 pretending to be 43. The age difference would prove to be a thorn in Raymond’s side for the length of their marriage. His relationships with Florence, Cissy and other women in his life are explored in detail in the book. The women had the greatest influence on his ideals, the characters in his stories and his motivations in life. The author also touches upon Chandler’s possible homosexuality.

His literary career was put on the back burner in the years that followed. He began drinking and became an alcoholic in the 1920s. It was until Chandler lost his cushy job at Dabney Oil Syndicate that he picked up writing again. He took a correspondence course on fiction and started writing pulp stories for the magazine Black Mask. These proved to be popular and while Chandler didn’t see himself as a mystery writer he enjoyed the work.

Chandler's pulp stories improved as he developed and honed his skills. Author Tom Williams defines the pulp short genre as the following:
“The stories tended to revolve around a central male character who, more often than not, operated alone. Toughness was an essential virtue, as was a strict moral code that divided the world into good and bad, right and wrong. And the stories were characterized by simple, muscular, almost brutal prose.” 
 Chandler had a strict moral code “right and wrong were sharply defined in his world.” This bled into his writing and would often determine the fate of different characters in his stories. His stories explored “feelings of paranoia and disillusionment” and had a strong sense of place. This can be seen in his novels like The Big Sleep where Los Angeles and Hollywood are front and center in the narrative. Williams demonstrates themes in Chandler’s work with passages of text and plot points, character studies and how events and circumstances in Los Angeles shaped Chandler’s story.

“Along with The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, [The Big Sleep] has come to represent the high peak of the hard-boiled genre.” – Tom Williams

Moving beyond short stories, Chandler began to write novels. His first was The Big Sleep, published by Knopf and establishing detective Phillip Marlowe as a noir figure. Williams says, “[Phillip Marlowe] was a step forward from the characters of the pulp stories – a fully realized man rather than a vehicle for action.” What differentiated Chandler works from his peers James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett was the focus on character and setting and less on mystery and plot. Also Chandler’s narrative was in the first person which would later prove to be a strength for noir. Williams calls these elements “the key to his success.” Chandler wrote several novels, most of them featuring detective Marlowe. The biography goes into detail about The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and others. Most of his novels were initially flops. His first publisher Knopf neglected to market them well, didn’t see Chandler’s true potential. In the end Chandler’s stories proved to have legs in Hollywood and beyond.

Raymond Chandler's cameo in the film Double Indemnity


“All writing that has any life in it is done with the solar plexus. It is hard work in the sense that it may leave you tired, even exhausted.” – Raymond Chandler 

I enjoyed reading about Raymond Chandler’s work as a novelist, short story writer and screenwriter especially. Hollywood came knocking and Chandler got a gig as a screenwriter at Paramount. His first project was working with Billy Wilder on adapting Cain’s Double Indemnity for the big screen. But Chandler got a rough start in Hollywood. He couldn’t see eye-to-eye with anyone and when Double Indemnity was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar he didn’t even show up to the ceremony. Yet is work continued as he adapted The Blue Dahlia, And Now Tomorrow, The Unseen and other movies. He briefly worked on the adaptation of his own novel The Lady in the Lake. Always an admirer of Hitchcock, he was thrilled to work with him on adapting Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train but the two butted heads and Chandler was kicked off the project. Chandler might not have appreciated the modest success of his novels and film adaptations at the time because he could not forsee the fame and recognition that was to come.


Raymond Chandler portrait from LIFE magazine

The depth of research found in this book is often mind-blowing. I love that careful attention to detail. I read many biographies and can always tell when the author took the time and effort to leave no stone unturned in their quest for information. Some readers find the transparency of research in a biography to remove them from the narrative of the story. You get that sense a little bit at the beginning of the book but the narrative voice eventually finds its stride. This book is also the perfect example of how you can have a biography without footnotes. Nothing frustrates me more than a book with too many footnotes, it disrupts the flow of reading and often times isn’t necessary. Williams expertly weaves all the information into the narrative.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe
 So to answer my original question, was Chandler as interesting as Marlowe? While Chandler imbued the Marlowe character with many of his own traits, Chandler as a central figure in this biography is not as interesting as his creation. Frankly he was a fuddy duddy who had a strange viewpoint on the opposite sex and proved to be difficult in both professional and personal relationships. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to keep the allure of a mysterious Chandler or if you’re willing to take a closer look at the man behind Marlowe.

Thoroughly researched, this comprehensive biography dives deep into the life of one of the most notable storytellers of the 20th Century. It’s highly recommended to any readers interested in Raymond Chandler, the writing process and the birth of noir.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book for review!

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