Tom Williams has embarked on a very daring literary journey in writing a biography of a man whose life seemed to have been definitively covered by Frank McShane’s seminal 1976 biography ‘The Life of Raymond Chandler’.
So whither ‘A Mysterious Something in the Light’ ? Is this biography the equivalent of stealing into the orchard at night after the fruit pickers have gone home for the day?
You would be forgiven for thinking so but let me assure you that, this is not the case with this particular biography. Chandler was highly complex individual whose personal life, work and psyche were a byzantine nest of subterranean tunnels that to this days, decades after his death, still retain many darkly virgin coal seams of uncovered facts and secrets that shine a new light into the many shadowy corners of one Raymond Chandler, iconic and pioneering mystery and crime writer of the early to mid twentieth century.
Chandler was born to Maurice and Florence Chandler nee Thornton in Chicago 1888. Florence was originally from Waterford, Ireland and from rather comfortably-off Anglo-Irish Quaker stock. Maurice was an American engineer. Mother and father were ill suited. He was unreliable and prone to alcoholism and violence. In 1900, Florence after having given her failing marriage many chances, decided enough was enough and returned to Waterford with the twelve year Raymond.
But this was not a typical Irish family by any means. The Anglo-Irish fell between two cultural stools. They were not Gaelic but descended from wealthy English landowners who didn’t see themselves as Irish yet they were not quite English.
A people lost between nations.
Soon after, he and his mother left for London where he was educated at Dulwich College where he thrived and remained until 1904. It was here that Chandler decided to become a writer but his first ventures into literary waters were not the crime or mystery that he’s known for but pastiches of Arthurian/Chivalric legend
Not quite American, not quite Irish, not quite English, Chandler harboured a sense of being an outsider, not quite belonging. This was one of many shadows from his childhood that cast a long umbra for the rest of his life.
The young Chandler had enough and left the emotional safety of his life with his mother Florence and returned to America where he believed he could reinvent himself and start anew.
Like many young men of perhaps a sheltered upbringing, the First World War thrust them into corners of the world that they otherwise would not have seen, shaping Chandler’s persona further. He had worked in a succession of dull office jobs which reminds of what Orwell wrote in Keep the Aspidistra Flying ‘Why are young men condemned to a good job in an office’? However during this time, Chandler was writing poetry and had his first tastes of literary success in the long forgotten Chamber’s Journal, still couched in the vein and influence of Arthurian legend.
Chandler joined the Canadian army. His decision was actuarial as the US army would not pay to support his mother, Florence if he were killed. Chandler returned to Europe where he saw front line action in the trenches. He made it through the war, physically at least and in 1918, joined the RAF before being demobbed in 1919 and returned to LA where he fatefully fell in love with the woman who was shape the rest of his adult life, Cissy Pascal, 18 years his senior.
The ravages of war had turned the young Raymond to an alcoholic albeit a seemingly high-functioning one.
“When I was a young man in the RAF, I would get so plastered that I had to crawl to bed on my hands and knees”
But now married and established as a high flying oil executive and moved to Los Angeles during the era of Prohibition, a tense and edgy era where corruption and organised crime were born and grew quickly in a dark symbiosis which coloured every strand of the civic and social fabric of the precocious new upstart of a city. It was during this time that Chandler’s fingers were burned by the flames of an attractive investment scam namely that of Julian Petroleum. It was both this direct and other indirect news items of injustice that gave form and shape to the noir sensibilities of corruption that became the hallmark of his most famous works.
His alcoholism became more noticeable during this time and indulged in extramarital affairs which led to a short-lived separation between Chandler and his wife Cissy. They got back together but his troubles with the bottle and the negative effect it had on his mood and behaviour had a large part to play in his eventual firing from his oil executive post in 1931. He was 43 but this cloud had a silver lining and gave him the impetus to focus on his writing full-time.
It was a financially challenging time, living on $25. This is the equivalent to $462 per week in today’s money according to http://www.usinflationcalculator.com. Not a sum that allowed a couple to indulge in luxury and life was pretty meagre but it was an auspicious time as this was the heyday of the new pulp magazines that captured the nation’s imagination, one of the most famous being The Black Mask. It was establish in the early 1920’s but steadily grew in reputation and circulation, its stories being steeped in the realism that its readership craved. Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner were regular contributors, such was the pedigree. Their work drew its realism from Hammett’s work as a real life private detective and Stanley’s own law practice. Chandler did not have this advantage but he used his imagination and knowledge of the crookedness of Los Angeles to whet and hone his literary style.
1939 saw the publication of his first novel The Big Sleep followed by Farewell, My Lovely in 1940, novels which introduced Philip Marlowe to the world. It was his second novel that caught Hollywood’s eye when it was produced as but morphed into the 1944 film Murder My Sweet in the US but released under the original name in the UK.
Despite his novels having stirred up rumours of repressed homosexuality, literary success and acclaim followed leading to a spell as a Hollywood screenwriter where he had a very uneasy working relationship with Billy Wilder which nevertheless, led to the production of the stylistic and cinematically acclaimed Double Indemnity in 1944. Chandler later worked with Hitchcock but their relationship was strained. Alcoholism seems to draw a veil of taciturnity over every aspect of Chandler’s life and poisoned most of his key working relationships which should have been more fruitful.
In 1946, Chandler left Paramount, disenchanted and indignant of the many perceived dishonourable practices he witnessed and partook in. He and Cissy returned to La Jolla in California where he wrote two further novels The Long Goodbye and the not so well known Playback. However he was unable to replicate his original happiness there. Old friends and associates were no longer there and Chandler entered a period of introspection and detachment, exacerbating his increasing penchant for misanthropic grumpiness – a vicious circle.
In 1952, the Chandlers realised their long held dream of visiting London but Cissy was in poor health and the London of their daydreams was a disappointment in its realisation such as the still extant expectation of formal etiquette, something that the more relaxed culture of California had allowed Chandler to forget. However, he did discover that he was more respected as an artist and writer in England than in his adopted American homeland
‘In England I am an author. In the USA just a mystery writer’ he wrote to Paul Brooks.
After two months, the Chandlers returned to the US but Cissy became frailer.
In 1954, Cissy died and Chandler entered into a period of ever quickening decline. A paucity of literary output of any worth and a string of short lived and some bizarre love affairs were the background to his increasing alcoholism which reached terminal point in 1959 when he died in hospital.
Tom Williams, the author and latest Chandler biographer, has performed a worthy, lucid and very well written exercise in judiciously mining of rich seams of new found fact and epistolary evidence and has given new and refreshed insight into the man and surprisingly remarkably detailed information on the genesis and development of his craft as well as the trajectory of his somewhat mixed up, chaotic personal life. The prose is quite workmanlike but it lets the facts speak for themselves. Williams does pepper this biography with conjecture of Chandler’s thoughts and situational analysis where direct evidence may not exist but nevertheless, it is intelligently based on the ample evidence that Williams has dug up and there is little doubt in my mind that it is as near the mark as any biographer could come up with bar a time machine.
This is an excellent biography and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and savouring it. Chandler like most literary heroes was a terribly flawed man but his canon mitigates this and thank goodness it is his literary reputation that eclipses his foibles and faults.
(I received this book courtesy of Rhian Davies @crimeficreader & http://itsacrime.wordpress.com )