Although he came to writing novels accidentally, Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett, proved that fictional entertainments could rise to the level of serious art. Chandler wrote in the hard-boiled style of the day, but extended the idiom's possibilities through sharp wit, exaggerated metaphors, and subjective narration. Chandler also brought an astringent social criticism to his works that revealed a sharp intellect and probing insight. All of this was accomplished in only seven novels, two dozen short stories, and some articles and screenplays.
Born July 23, 1888 in Chicago, Illinois, he was the only child of Maurice and Florence Chandler, Chandler's parents separated, and his mother relocated to London for his education. He served in the Canadian Army in World War I and then the Royal Air Force, and after his discharge began a career in the California oil business, in which he was initially successful until his dismissal for drinking and erratic behavior. In 1933 Black Mask magazine published his first story, and he continued writing for the pulps until the publication of his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), the success of which propelled him into an equally successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter.
In his first novel Chandler presents Philip Marlowe, a Los Angeles private detective who would become the quintessential Chandler hero in each of his other works. Marlowe is not a typical detective, being a man of some education and refined sensibilities. Chandler's model came from Arthurian romance, and Marlowe is presented as a modern knight, a man of chivalric instincts who typically enters cases for neither money nor revenge but out of a sense of personal justice. Further, like a knight, Marlowe remains aloof from women, often regarding them as distractions or potent threats to his mission.
Marlowe's stringent ethics bring him forever into conflict with both police and criminals. The police are often sloppy, incompetent, or vicious, and Marlowe accords them little respect and spares them no criticism. The criminals – mobsters, killers, small-time hustlers, and so on – are depicted as morally bankrupt and exploitative. In a world where the police are lazy or inefficient and where the criminals are allowed to run roughshod over the populace, Marlowe sees himself as the last line of resistance to pure chaos.
The Big Sleep establishes the outlines for the other novels and some consistent concerns. Set in Los Angeles, Chandler's metaphor for a society obsessed with money and thrills, Marlowe takes an extortion case that reveals the utter corruption of a seemingly respectable family, and the same general situation pertains in The High Window (1942), revealing Chandler's exploration of the nexus between wealth and corruption. While plotting is never Chandler's strong suit, he rebels against what he sees as the limitations of the traditional detective fiction formula – plot-driven puzzles that end predictably with the discovery of the villain and the restoration of a violated world. These two novels end with Marlowe withholding information and feeling soiled by his association with the families.
Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Lady in the Lake (1943) center on disguised identities and hidden pasts. In each, self-serving, dangerous women kill to preserve their new personae, and each reveals Marlowe's great strength – wise-guy dialogue, his most potent weapon. In all the novels, he rarely draws a gun or strikes anyone, but he is never averse to verbally reducing an adversary. The novels also feature some compelling character studies. The theme of altered or hidden identities continues in The Little Sister (1948), which could be described as Chandler's Hollywood novel. An air of unreality pervades relationships and the plot itself, and as the bodies pile up and identities shift, Marlowe admits he feels like an audience to a performance.
The Long Goodbye (1954) has an elegiac tone and is a compelling study of friendship deceived. Again Chandler creates an amoral world with Marlowe cast as the lone defender of a forgotten ideal. For the first time, Marlowe is depicted as having close personal attachments, in a brief friendship with Terry Lennox, whom he must dismiss for moral defeatism, and a love affair with Linda Loring. Chandler's concern once more is with character development and detailed psychological analysis, and the novel, though it has its murders, is less an exercise in detection than in ethical questioning.
Playback (1958), his last novel, is a disaster, poorly written, thinly developed, and lifeless. By this time Chandler's wife had died, and he was suffering from bouts of alcoholism, declining health, and professional frustration. Shortly after accepting the presidency of the Mystery Writers of America, he died on March 26, 1959.
Chandler was first and foremost a stylist, someone who brought to a popular genre a sense of moral seriousness and social scrutiny. In these ways he was indebted to Ernest Hemingway and the urban fictions of Theodore Dreiser, but he was no imitator, though he spawned legions of acolytes.
SEE ALSO: Cain, James M. (AF); Detective/Crime Fiction (WF); Dreiser, Theodore (AF); Hammett, Dashiell (AF); Hemingway, Ernest (AF); Modern Fiction in Hollywood (AF); Noir Fiction (AF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF)
- The Big Sleep. New York: Knopf. (1939).
- Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Knopf. (1940).
- The High Window. New York: Knopf. (1942).
- The Lady in the Lake. New York: Knopf. (1943).
- The Little Sister. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (1949).
- The Long Goodbye. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (1954).
- Playback. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (1958).
- Trouble Is My Business. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (1950).
- Pick-Up on Noon Street. New York: Pocket Books. (1952).
- Pearls Are a Nuisance. London: Hamish Hamilton. (1953).
- Killer in the Rain. London: Hamish Hamilton. (1964).
- Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (1963).
- Gross, M. (ed.) (1978). The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W.
- Raymond Chandler: A Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. (1997).
- The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York: E. P. Dutton. (1976).
- Raymond Chandler. Boston: Twayne. (1986).
- Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. (2000).
- Raymond Chandler. New York: Ungar. (1981).
- Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe. London: Vermilion. (1983).
- Something More Than Night: The Case of Raymond Chandler. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. (1985).
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