During Raymond Chandler's earliest years in Los Angeles, long before he wrote The Big Sleep and other superb detective novels, he and a friend loved to play a bizarre practical joke on movie audiences. They would go to a theatre showing a silent melodrama, take seats on opposite sides of the house, and then, at a pre-arranged moment, begin laughing hysterically at a totally lugubrious scene, as if it were a comedy. Often they managed to get much of the audience laughing along with them.
That was perfect Chandler, circa 1913: a subversive and irreverent joke expressing his contempt for movies and those who took them seriously. This month, Chandler (1888-1959) appears in bookstores again with a fascinating self-portrait, The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction (Atlantic Monthly Press), edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane. To read it alongside Hiney's 1997 book Raymond Chandler: A Biography is to wade through a life that was both triumphant and appalling.
Chandler was born in Chicago, spent his childhood in Ireland, went to school in England, served with the Canadians in the First World War trenches, and mastered American argot better than any other writer of his time. His characters spoke a language that was both fresh and convincing ("If you want trouble, I come from where they make it"). In 1949, responding to a letter from the Canadian journalist Alex Barris, Chandler wrote: "I'm an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular, largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. I had to learn American just like a foreign language."
Certainly he was a snob. That may have been why Cary Grant was his first choice to play his tough-talking, extremely American hero, Philip Marlowe. It sounds like a bad idea; every Marlowe I recall (Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould) seems closer to the original than Grant would have been. But Grant was classier.
Chandler flattered himself that he belonged in an earlier historic period, "an age of grace." But he also exhibited most of his era's vulgar prejudices. Of course he thought psychiatry was bunk, of course he viewed homosexuals with distaste, and of course he was politely anti-Semitic. "I distrust Jews," he wrote, "although I admit that the really nice Jew is probably the salt of the earth." He believed homosexuals "always lack any deep emotional feeling."
Chandler had a hard time getting started in life, professionally and personally. As a young man in London he was both poor and lonely, and after failing as a journalist he moved to the United States to seek his fortune. What finally got him going was a chance meeting with a generous older man who took a liking to him. (Sounds just like a novel -- though not a Chandler novel.)
Chandler's benefactor (and also his co-conspirator in the movie-house hoax) was Warren Lloyd, a Los Angeles oil man who held a Yale doctorate in psychology and wrote a book called Psychology Normal and Abnormal. When they met on a transAtlantic ship in 1912, Lloyd encouraged Chandler to settle in Los Angeles. He found an oil-company job for him, and over the next decade Chandler prospered as a businessman.
Eventually, alcoholism wrecked his corporate career; after he began vanishing on weekend binges that lasted till Wednesday, he was fired. For money he started writing pulp-magazine stories, then novels.
In Lloyd's circle, Chandler met and fell in love with Cissy Pascal, a former model then married to her second husband, Julian Pascal. One day in 1920, Chandler, Cissy and Julian held a meeting, with their friend Lloyd present as advisor. Cissy declared that while she still loved her husband, she loved Raymond more. Everyone agreed she should get a divorce and marry him. Chandler was 35 years old; Cissy 53, about six years younger than his mother.
They were together until Cissy died, in 1954. Chandler wrote: "For 30 years, 10 months and two days, she was the light of my life." Right after her death, he completely disintegrated. His last five years were a blur of binge drinking, suicide attempts and unsuccessful rescue missions organized by a series of sympathetic women.
Unfortunately, Chandler destroyed Cissy's letters and left no detailed account of her. Literary history knows little except that she was lovely, that she pronounced her fourth surname "Chond-lah" and that she called him "Raymio" because he was so romantic. Hiney also tells us that she used to do the housework naked. Otherwise, she goes silent into that dark night.
Chandler grounded his style in realism, but his hero was pure fantasy. As Chandler explained, in real life no one remotely like Philip Marlowe would be a private detective. Fantasy or not, Marlowe won Chandler his place in history. Even if readers tire of the books, Marlowe will remain an icon for gallantry and integrity amid moral squalor. People will always want to see Bogart's version of him, and writers will continue to imitate the mannerisms that Chandler gave him.
Marlowe is one of those rare fictional characters who eventually become known far beyond their original birthplace in print. He's like Tarzan, Jeeves, James Bond, Dick Tracy, etc. How many such characters appeared in the 20th century? A few dozen, perhaps? No more.
Now here's the odd thing, a fact to be cherished by all those who love coincidence: Three of those characters originated in the minds of writers who attended the same school in south London, Dulwich College, in roughly the same era. P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves, was there from 1894 to 1900; Chandler from 1900 to 1905; and C.S. Forester, who gave the world Horatio Hornblower, was there in 1915 and 1916.
Hiney offers an explanation. He tells us about A.H. Gilkes, the charismatic Dulwich headmaster who stood 6 feet 5 inches, had a long grey beard, paid careful attention to every boy in the school, banned corporal punishment and wrote now-forgotten novels in which he expressed the same decency and honour that he preached at Dulwich. Could he have so deeply impressed those three boys that his idealism shaped their work even half a century later? Remarkably, it seems just possible.