Raymond Chandler: a troubled author who raised the level of hard-boiled detective fiction

The educated, troubled Raymond Chandler learned how to write detective fiction by doing what he knew best how to do. He studied.

In 1932, he found himself past 40, out of a job, and in the middle of the Great Depression. His demons were alcohol, women, and chronic absenteeism — all of which had gotten him fired from his well-paying job at the Dabney Oil Company. He escaped Los Angeles by traveling to Seattle and then driving up and down the West Coast, doing nothing in particular.

Raymond Chandler

Nothing except reading detective pulp magazines, mainly because they were cheap.

But something about the stories and the writing struck a chord with Chandler and his English public school education. He was fascinated. He read them closely. The realization came to him that this genre of writing and storytelling had possibilities that no one else had conceived.

Chandler decided that writing this kind of fiction would be a good way to make a living, and he set out to do just that.

He studied Earl Stanley Gardner, famously the author of the Perry Mason series, and later wrote to him:

 “I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane…I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good.”

Chandler was neither a fast nor a facile writer. He labored mightily over sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. He would write a scene and then re-conceive the scene and write it again. But when he finally called a piece finished and sent it off to an editor or publisher, it was like nothing anyone had ever read before. Chandler took what Dashiell Hammett had started — the character of the lone “private detective” or “private eye” — and gave him new dimensions and a new relationship to the world around him.

Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe was an Everyman, pitted against the forces of greed, avarice, and deception. He not only had a code of personal conduct but also a social conscience that cemented his independence.

Hammett’s writing was spare and terse, and his dialogue was crackling. Chandler greatly admired those qualities, and the same could be said for much of his prose. But Chandler could wield a metaphor or simile with precision and depth that revealed a range of familiarity for the greats of literature from William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens.

Chandler’s writing eventually caught on, and he published his first book The Big Sleep, in 1939. During the next 20 years, Chandler wrote more books and short stories. He worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and with big-name directors and stars. He made a lot of money, spent a lot of money, chased a lot of women, and drank way too much alcohol. In 1953, he published his last novel, The Long Goodbye. Here’s what his biographer William Marling had to say about that.

An immediate critical and sales success, The Long Goodbye(1953) launched a new era in hard-boiled fiction – that of the socially, politically, racially, sexually, or environmentally conscious detective. (Detnovel.com)

But Chandler’s talent and energy were spent, and he died in 1959 with a second-rate novel half written.

***

Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Dutton, 1976)

William Marling, Raymond Chandler (Boston: Twayne, 1986)

Raymond Chandler, Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Ed. Frank MacShane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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