Clues to his craft
Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something in the Light: A New Biography
RAYMOND Chandler is famous for outrageous figures of speech such as his description of the outlandishly dressed killer Moose Malloy in the opening pages of Farewell, My Lovely, who looks ‘‘ about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel-food cake’’.
But Chandler’s style is also distinguished elsewhere by a careful economy of description, beautifully balanced phrasing and a linguistic precision unmatched by any writer in any genre. His poetic instinct is evident in the gorgeous cadences of so many of his titles: Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep; The Lady in the Lake; The Long Goodbye.
It’s these qualities that have contributed to Chandler’s enduring legacy, and it’s a measure of his growing literary status that Tom Williams takes it for granted readers will recognise Chandler as a great artist, not merely a talented crime writer, unlike earlier biographers. Williams reveres his subject, whom he calls ‘‘ Ray’’ throughout this book, and tries hard to produce a sympathetic portrait of a basically very difficult personality. From all accounts Chandler was cantankerous, prideful, unable to take criticism, stubborn and dreadfully racist. He was painfully shy and drank to deal with it; he could also be very funny, affectionate and loyal.
Williams’s research on Chandler’s early life is a main strength of A Mysterious Something in the Light. He adds to the picture we already have of Chandler’s difficult childhood and corrects the record on a couple of significant points. Chandler fought for the Canadian army in World War I and saw action in the trenches of Europe. He famously claimed to have been the only one of his company to have survived a horrendous bomb attack in which the shelter the men were in was blown up. It’s a dramatic story, but Williams presents evidence that it can’t be true, and presents a canny image of Chandler as a consummate storyteller invested in creating a kind of mythology around himself. (Tellingly, ‘‘ invented stories about personal life’’ is an index item with several entries.)
Chandler is famous for perfecting what we know as a quintessentially American style and genre, the hard-boiled, noir crime story. But it was never his own, native language. Photographs rarely fail to show him without his pipe and tweed jacket, an Englishman, forever positioned as an anomalous figure in his adopted home, California.
Born in the US to an Irish mother and American father, he grew up in the midwest but then moved back to Ireland at age 11 with his mother when his parents divorced. Soon afterwards they moved again, to London, where Chandler’s uncle, a wealthy lawyer, bore the costs of sending him to Dulwich, a prestigious private school. There, Chandler By Tom Williams Aurum Press, 400pp, $39.95 (HB) excelled academically and seemed destined for a successful university career. But there was no money. Chandler settled for a career in the civil service (where he topped the classics section of the entrance exam).
A few years later, bored with life as a public servant and having failed to succeed as a journalist, he returned to the US, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.
Chandler’s cultural identity was thus vexed. The sense he grew up with of never entirely belonging, never fitting in completely, is surely essential to his ability to so brilliantly craft the lonely, outsider figures that define his fiction, such as the famous Philip Marlowe.
Williams’s insights into Chandler’s early years are enormously valuable in helping to understand some of the peculiar tendencies and values that defined his attitudes to life and writing; his personal brand of vaguely resentful chivalry towards women, for instance, which Williams traces convincingly to parts of the author’s upbringing. Chandler’s father was severely alcoholic and violent when he drank, and it seems that domestic violence was a crucial factor in his mother’s decision to leave the marriage.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Chandler’s life is his long marriage to a woman almost 20 years older than him, his beloved Cissy, and it’s unfortunate Williams isn’t able to paint a more detailed picture of her as an individual.
Cissy was an accomplished pianist and former artist’s model, and Chandler was friends with her stepson. She divorced to marry Chandler, her third husband. But we never find out much about her interests or what constituted their relationship beyond a sense that Chandler venerated her as a mother figure. They married when Chandler was 35 and she was 53 and, apart from a brief separation early in their marriage, they were together until she died in 1954.
Her death was Chandler’s undoing: he spiralled into fatal alcoholism and seems to have tried unsuccessfully to replace Cissy with a string of other women before his own death five years later.
Raymond Chandler, like Marlowe, was a lonely outsider