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Raymond Chandler

A Brief Biography - History

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Fired at 44. Such was the fate of an English-educated, half-Irish American who had, after a somewhat vagabond life, apparently made good in the oil business in California. But Depression days had made things difficult, and Raymond Chandler had also found his home life less happy than it had been now that his wife, older than himself, had reached 60 and was not always well. He had sought relief in secretaries and drink and some of his weekends had lasted till Wednesday. So there he was, with no job, nothing to do and nowhere to go.

His thoughts turned again then to the ambition of his youth when, as he later said himself, 'I wanted to be a writer' though 'that would not have gone down at all, especially with my rich and tyrannical uncle'. He had passively, at the age of 18, agreed to go into the Civil Service in Britain and to study in France and Germany as a preparation.

That ambition to write, however, led him to quit after only six months the position in the Admiralty he eventually gained, third out of 600 in the competitive exam, and to take up occasional journalism, including the penning of verses, 'most of which', he wrote to his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, in 1950, 'now seem to me deplorable, but not all'. Journalism, however, paid little, and young Chandler returned to the United States where he had been born, toying with writing only to the extent of 'almost' selling to the Atlantic a Henry James pastiche.

But now, wandering up and down the Pacific coast by car wondering what to do, he began to read pulp magazines 'because', as he eventually wrote to Hamish Hamilton, 'they were cheap to throw away and because I never had at any time any taste for the kind of thing which is known as women's magazines'. It struck him, he says, that some of the writing in such magazines as Black Mask, in which Dashiell Hammett and Erie Stanley Gardner were appearing, was 'pretty forceful and honest'.

He decided that trying to contribute stories of the sort Black Mask was using, the
hard-boiled detective tale, might be a good way to learn to write fiction 'and get paid a small amount of money at the same time'. To teach himself, he adapted the method that he had had to undergo as a schoolboy at Dulwich College, translating from Latin into English and then after a while translating back into Latin. Now he spent hours reducing Black Mask stories to their bare bones and then rewriting them in his own words. 'It would seem that a classical education might be a rather poor basis for writing novels in a hard-boiled vernacular,' he said after he had achieved his success. 'I happen to think otherwise.'

With five months' work he produced, and sold, a long short story called 'Blackmailers Don't Shoot' and, he wrote, 'after that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward'. Cannabalising two stories he had had in Black Mask, 'Killer in the Rain' which had appeared in the January 1935 issue and 'The Curtain' from the September 1936 issue, he had inside three months written the first of the Philip Marlowe novels, The Big Sleep. (The seeming argot expression for death was his own invention, though philologists later annexed it to genuine underworld talk.)

Chandler took eleven of the book's chapters from 'Killer' and ten from 'The Curtain' adding eleven others new. But each of the chapters he 'borrowed' from the short stories contains many parts and paragraphs that he considerably extended. And the killer in The Big Sleep, Carmen Sternwood, she of the little sharp predatory teeth, white as fresh orange pith', is a femaled (what a word) version of Dade Trevillyan, the psychopath murderer of 'The Curtain', passed through the character of Carmen Dravec, of 'Killer'. There are 21 characters in the novel, if you count. Four of them are composites from the two short stories, four were completely new and the remaining 13 come almost equally from each story.

In much the same way Marlowe himself grew up through Chandler's Black Mask stories, in which the detective figure is at first not named at all in 'Killer', becomes Carmady with no forename in the three Mask stories that followed and then in the next three gets John in front of Dalmas, until in the first words of The Big Sleep he steps into full life, Chandler's wife having persuaded him out of the 'Mallory' in his early drafts, (Both names with their references to English literature underline the knight-errantry lurking in the seedy California office.)

So at last Philip Marlowe came to life, with 'the fire and the dash necessary for vivid writing' (Chandler's words to Philip Morgan, associate editor of the Atlantic, commenting adversely on the puzzle-maker's mind), in those very first words:

    It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with; dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it.

The words, with their hint of self-mockery, have an air of utter Tightness, of being the only possible ones there could be. A crime classic had been born.

Raymond Chandler Bibliography

Classic Crime Fiction

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