Clues to his craft

Ray­mond Chan­dler: A Mys­te­ri­ous Some­thing in the Light: A New Bi­og­ra­phy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Tran­ter Kirsten Tran­ter

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

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