Early 20th Century Fiction: Chandler
Raymond Chandler was born July 23, 1888, in Chicago. His parents divorced when he was 7 and his mother took him to live in London. He was educated there at Dulwich College; then he spent time studying in France and Germany and working as a freelance journalist. He became a naturalized citizen of England and worked for the Admiralty for a time, all the while continuing to contribute poems, essays, and reviews to various literary magazines. At age 24, in 1912, he returned to the United States. He lived briefly in St. Louis and Omaha, then moved to California; his mother came from England to live with him there.
He held a series of jobs and studied bookkeeping and accounting. But then World War I began. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in August of 1917 and was sent first to England, and from there to France. In June 1918, Chandler's unit was killed in an artillery barrage; he was the only survivor. He was transferred to the Royal Air Force and began flight training. The war ended in November 1918, and he was discharged from the Army in February 1919.
He returned to the United States, lived for a time in California, and eventually settled in Los Angeles. He took a job as a bookkeeper at an oil company and quickly worked his way up to a position as vice president of the company. He met Cissy Pascal, a married former model 18 years his senior, and they began an affair. Before too long, she divorced her husband to be with Chandler. Chandler's mother, however, disapproved of Cissy, and Chandler's mother was a powerful force in his life. He didn't stop seeing Cissy, but he didn't marry her until after his mother died in 1924.
By now, Chandler was a heavy drinker, and it began to affect his work. He often couldn't go in to the office, and when he did, he was frequently drunk on the job. In 1932, his boss fired him.
And that was how, at the age of 44, Chandler became a writer. He had a decent amount of money saved, but he began writing to slow the drain on his savings. His first published short story was "Blackmailers Don't Shoot"; it appeared in the December 1933 issue of Black Mask. He wrote slowly, and published only 23 short stories and seven novels during his career. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940.
He began working in Hollywood, like so many other writers at the time, for money. Among his screenplay credits are Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia. He was making a good salary for writing scripts, and at about the same time, his books began to sell well, too, so he no longer had to worry about money. He and Cissy moved to La Jolla, California, in 1946.
Cissy Chandler's health was slowly declining; she died in 1954, and Chandler was griefstricken. He began drinking heavily (he had quit drinking several years before, after promising Cissy he would stop), and he attempted suicide. He recovered slowly and began travelling again, spending time in England and Italy. But his health was not good, and he died on March 26, 1959, in La Jolla.
Farewell, My Lovely
Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940. Its main character is Philip Marlowe, who first appeared in The Big Sleep (1939). Farewell, My Lovely is set in Depression-era Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is as much a character in the novel as any of the human beings in it. Chandler shows Los Angeles in all its gritty, glamorous glory, a place where beauty and corruption exist side-by-side, and very little is what it appears to be. Time after time, he contrasts the real beauty of nature with the false beauty of "civilization." There are very few true innocents in Chandler's novels, but there are a few people who are good; there are many who are bad.
Philip Marlowe is no innocent; he is the good guy, although his definition of "good" probably wouldn't be endorsed by many policemen. He tracks down murderers, but his interest isn't so much in murder as in correcting injustices, in righting wrongs, and in protecting the weak. In his famous essay about detective fiction, "The Simple Art of Murder," Chandler wrote that his detective must be a "knight" whose mission is to protect the weak and see that justice is done: "He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be...a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."
In the introduction to Trouble is My Business (1950), Chandler wrote that "The emotional basis of any detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done." But the hardboiled detective story is set in a different sort of world: "...obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done--unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done...Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night."
And through those streets walked Philip Marlowe. In a letter to John Houseman, Chandler wrote, "Marlowe and his kind were the last honest men left in our society; they did their assigned jobs and took their wages; they were not acquisitive nor did they try to rise in the world by stepping on other people's faces; they would never try to take over the earth nor would they compensate for their own weakness by pushing other people around. Marlowe's was, in fact, the only attitude that a self-respecting, decent man could maintain in today's rapacious and brutal world."
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. Jack Hicks, et al. The Literature of California Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
2. Eds. Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A. Marchino. The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction. New York: Pearson, 2005.
3. Philip Durham. "Introduction" to Raymond Chandler's Killer in the Rain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
4. Eds. Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker. Raymond Chandler Speaking. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.