What do you do when you’re a top executive with a large oil company and you lose your job during the depression. If your Raymond Chandler, you become a writer of hardboiled detective fiction. He may have started his writing career late in life −at the age of forty-four− but he created one of the most iconic detectives of all time in Phillip Marlowe.
Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, Illinois to Florence and Maurice Chandler. He spent his early years living in Plattsmouth, Nebraska near relatives of his mother’s family. However, life was not easy for him and his mother. His father was an alcoholic and then abandon the family. His mother, who was originally from Ireland, made a decision that the best place to raise Ray was to return nearer her home. They arrived in London in 1900 where they lived with her mother while one of her Irish uncles supported them.
After his early education, Chandler continued at Dulwich College in London. Other famous authors who received their education at this institution were C.S. Forester and P.G. Wodehouse. He did not go on to attend university but spent time traveling in Germany and France. In 1907, he was naturalized as a British subject. This allowed him to take the civil service examination and get a job with the British Admiralty. Also during this time he published his first poem.
Chandler soon discovered he did not like civil service and disregarding family objections he resigned. He next worked as a reporter for both the Daily Express and the Bristol Western Gazette. He was not considered a particularly good journalist, but he published reviews and continued writing poetry.
In 1912 he returned to the US and his mother joined him at the end of the year. In 1913 they moved to the city of Los Angeles.
In 1917 when World War I started he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and he did see action in France. He had just started flight training in the Royal Air Force when the war ended.
Chandler’s Personal Life
After his military service, he returned to Los Angeles and fell in love with Pearl (Cissy) Pascal. She was 18 years his senior, married and the step mother to one of the men that enlisted with Chandler. Cissy divorced her husband but Chandler’s mother was still not happy with her son’s choice of a partner. Chandler waited and in the interim supported both woman. Then after his mother’s death in 1923, he married Cissy.
Chandler was totally in love with Cissy. When Cissy died in 1954 Chandler was absolutely heartbroken. His loneliness after her death along with his increased drinking led to bouts of depression. He attempted suicide in 1955. He even forgot that Cissy’s ashes were stored in the basement of Cypress View Mausoleum. It wasn’t until 2010 through the efforts of lawyer, Aissa Wayne (John Wayne’s daughter) that Cissy finally joined Chandler at his grave site in Mount Hope cemetery. On the gravestone are the words “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”
Chandler and Pulp Fiction
Chandler explained that he started reading pulp fiction because he never cared for the short stories found in women’s magazines. Chandler said he taught himself to write pulp fiction by reading and studying the stories from Erle Stanley Gardner.
The Black Mask magazine, which was featured in a previous blog, published Chandler’s first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” in 1933. In his first stories the detective’s name was Mallory. However, when Chandler was at Dulwich College he was a member of Marlowe house and it is believed this influenced the name change. The last pulp fiction short story Chandler penned was “The Pencil.” (1959)
Chandler’s Marlowe Novels
The first full length novel that introduce his detective Philip Marlowe was The Big Sleep in 1939. Chandler was 51 when this book was published.
After, The Big Sleep he wrote six more Philip Marlowe novels. The last Marlowe novel that Chandler completed was Playback. He was 70 when he finished this book.
Chandler Plot Summaries:
The Big Sleep (1939) In this first book, Marlowe is hired by aging millionaire General Sternwood. He tells Marlowe that his daughter Carmen is being blackmailed. However, Marlowe also learns that sister Vivian’s husband Rusty Regan has disappeared.
What appears to be a simple case of paying off a blackmailer turns into a complex case of kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murders. And under Marlowe’s code of justice all the murders must be solved regardless of who committed them.
Farewell My Lovely (1940) While working a dead-end case, Marlowe spots felon Moose Malloy in a nightclub called Florian’s. He’s looking for his ex-girlfriend Velma Valento.
Marlowe on a separate case is hired to deliver a ransom to retrieve a set of stolen jewels. The separate searches for the missing showgirl and the missing jewelry merge into a string of related crimes for Marlowe to solve.
The High Window (1942) Marlowe is asked to recover a missing doubloon which is a rare and valuable coin. Is the coin’s disappearance related to the son, Leslie Murdock’s gambling debts? Was the husband’s fall from a window really a murder? Several murders are interwoven with the search for the coin and the players connected to it.
The Lady in the Lake (1943) Marlowe is hired by Derace Kingsley to find his estranged wife, Crystal. It’s believed that Crystal has run off with Chris Lavery, until he turns up dead.
There are three women challenging Marlowe’s detecting skills. The missing wife, the daughter found dead in a car with the motor running and of course the lady in the lake. Marlowe needs to sort out stolen identities, the murders and a crooked cop to bring justice to this case.
The Littler Sister (1949) This book incorporates Chandler’s film experience in several scenes, but does not portray Hollywood in a positive light. It focuses on a starlet, Mavis Weld who has a gangster boyfriend and a couple of siblings in her life. The plot includes multiple murders, black mail and family secrets that weave in and out of the plot.
The Long Goodbye (1953) This book was written while Chandler’s wife was dying and is considered his most personal. It concerns two men who are both alcoholics and one, Roger Wade, a successful novelist who now finds it hard to write.
It opens with Marlowe meeting a drunk named Terry Lennox who he later drives to Mexico. When he returns from Mexico, he finds that Lennox is accused of his wife’s murder. Lennox confesses to the murder in his suicide note. However, Marlowe is not convinced about Terry’s suicide.
In the meantime, Marlowe takes a case to keep novelist Roger Wade writing and not drinking. However, when Wade is murdered Marlowe finds the two cases are connected.
Playback (1958) Marlowe is hired by an anonymous client to find Betty Mayfield. She was acquitted of her husband’s murder but her father-in-law does not accept the outcome and wants her tailed. Marlowe finds he’s becoming romantically involved with the woman he is tailing. He must save her from both her father-in-law and a new murder charge.
Chandler’s Unfinished Novel
The eighth Marlowe novel was completed after Chandler’s death. When he died in 1959 he left behind four chapters of a new Phillip Marlowe novel. Robert B. Parker of Spencer fame was tapped to finish the book which was published in 1989. It’s called Poodle Springs and portrays Palm Springs in a negative light.
Detective Phillip Marlowe
The location for most of the Chandler’s stories is the city of Los Angeles. In these stories he takes the reader from the high life of society into the underbelly of the seedier side of the city. However, none of the social groups depicted were free from corruption.
Marlowe follows the general guidelines for hardboiled detectives. He was fired from the D.A.’s office for insubordination, but he maintains his contacts within law enforcement. He doesn’t engage in fights just to prove a point, but he can take care of himself. When he’s on the receiving end of an encounter, he’s tough and always manages to survive. He’s a drinker of hard liquors like brandy, whiskey and bourbon, but will indulge in cocktails like Gibsons and Gimlets when he’s with the ladies.
However, there’s a softer side to Marlowe. He is more of a thinker and a man who is fond of poetry and enjoys a game of chess against himself. But true to typical hardboiled behavior he’s a loner and maintains a one-man office with no secretary.
Like Hammett’s Sam Spade, Marlowe is able to avoid the seduction of the story’s femme fatales. In the end his code of moral justice will always win out over the ladies.
Chandler and the Film Industry
The film version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep (1946) is probably remembered more for the two stars that played in the movie rather than the plot of the book. Of course, I’m referring to actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In fact, Bacall’s role was enhanced from the original story in order to give her more screen time with Bogart.
His second novel Farewell, My Lovely was made into three different Hollywood movies. The 1944 version Murder My Sweet marked the screen debut of Phillip Marlowe played by Dick Powell. Chandler liked Powell’s Portrayal of Marlowe. However, many actors besides Powell portrayed Marlowe including James Mitchum, Powers Boot, James Garner, Elliot Gould and James Caan.
Because of the success of the Marlowe books, Chandler was in demand. He decided to try his hand as a screenwriter. In 1944 he worked with Billy Wilder and adopted James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity. Wilder said the dialogue which is the heart of the film was largely Chandler’s contribution. Chandler also wrote the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia (1946). Both of these screenplays were nominated for Academy Awards.
Chandler worked on the film Strangers on the Train (1951) with Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock and Chandler did not get along and rumor has it that Hitchcock threw Chandler’s first two drafts in the trash. However, when the screen credits were listed, Chandler was in first position.
Chandler’s Contribution to Mysteries
Chandler’s strength was not in the plots that were often intricate, complex and sometimes incomplete, but in the emotion revealed in his descriptions and dialogue. Chandler was considered to be a more thoughtful writer weaving various style elements into his stories which make the people and places seem real.
Marlowe is also perhaps more romantic than other hardboiled detectives of this period. He is often seen as a Sir Galahad coming to save the day.
Even though his style was different, Raymond Chandler along with Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain are credited with creating the standard for hardboiled detective fiction that we continue to enjoy today.