“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” The High Window
“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” Farewell, My Lovely
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Farewell, My Lovely
These quotes are from Raymond Chandler, the archetypal hard-boiled writer who could spin a metaphor out of thin air and watch it dance, the side-talking, whiskey drinking hood with the pen of gold. Sounds about right doesn’t it? You might be led into thinking that Chandler had grown up in the mean backstreets of L.A. and learned to cuss before he could talk. You might think he knew his way around a handgun or two. Was he an ex-cop, a gangster, or a private detective, before he began writing stories that the pulp magazines lapped up? Actually he was none of these things.
Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, Illinois. His father left the family not long afterward. When Raymond Chandler was 12 years old, his mother packed up their belonging and moved the family to London, England, in order that young Raymond could get the best education going. He enrolled in Dulwich College, London (a private school whose alumni include the authors P. G. Wodehouse and C. S. Forester) and received a classical education. Instead of going to university he spent some time in Paris and Munich trying to perfect his language skills.
He became a naturalized British citizen in order to sit the Civil Service exam, passed and took a job with the Admiralty. But he only stayed in the job for a year because he disliked the toadying and bootlicking that was expected of him. He took a job as a reporter for the Daily Express, a UK tabloid newspaper, but had limited success – some might call it failure – as a journalist. During this time he wrote romantic poems, few of which were published.
Eventually, in 1912 at the age of 24 he borrowed some money from a rich uncle and returned to America, San Francisco this time. He must have cut a strange figure back in the day, with his British-style clothes, his mid-Atlantic/English accent, and his exotic background,
By the time Chandler had reached adulthood his accent had changed from the clipped prep-school burr, to an American drawl, so that he sounded a bit like the actor Jimmy Stewart. He took a correspondence course in bookkeeping, excelled at the course and completed it early. However, he couldn’t find any steady employment. His mother joined him later that year and they moved to Los Angeles. Chandler held down a number of no-count jobs for a while, until he eventually found employment with the L.A. Creamery. When the US entered World War I in 1917, he promptly enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and saw action in the trenches in France.
On his return he began an affair with a married woman 18 years his senior. She then divorced her (second) husband, but Raymond’s mother disapproved of the match and so they held off until his mother’s death, four years later, and then married.
Having begun in 1922 as a bookkeeper and auditor, Chandler was by 1931 a highly paid vice president of the Dabney Oil Syndicate, but his alcoholism, absenteeism, promiscuity with female employees, and threatened suicides contributed to his dismissal a year later.
It was only at this point, in 1932 at the age of 44, after being laid off by the oil company, that he decided to become a fiction writer. It was during the Great Depression, so times were desperate. He studied the competition. He wrote a few stories and had them accepted by pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly and Dime Detective Monthly. After a few years making ends meet this way, he had his first novel published, The Big Sleep, in 1939. He published seven novels in all, as well as countless short stories. He died on March 26, 1959, in La Jolla, California.
When he started out writing for the pulps, it is a fact that he still had no idea how to represent tough-guy talk. ”I had to learn American just like a foreign language,” he said. But Chandler didn’t just duplicate the speech of the mean streets or the consummate techniques of his predecessors, such as James M. Cain, Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett. He transformed it, combining realism with romanticism, both in his writing style and in the character of Marlowe, who became the archetype P.I., cynical yet idealistic.
His time in Paris and Munich stood him in good stead. There is a level of concentration you need to learn another language. It’s a level that the ordinary communicator doesn’t have, since they usually only hear their own tongue spoken. Chandler had learned to listen, to duplicate, to mimic and so he took the grist of ordinary back-alley slang and ground it in his own mill of talent for simile and metaphor to produce something quite unique. It was a kind of ventriloquism. He has been imitated but never surpassed or equaled.
I can’t resist leaving you with a few more quotes:
“You’re broke, eh?”
I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.” The Big Sleep
“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” The Big Sleep
And my personal favorite:
“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life