Books

The detective writer’s writer

“The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words,” edited by Barry Day (Alfred A. Knopf, 250 pages, $30)

Much (if not over-much) has been written about Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlow and patriarch of the American noir detective story. An only child born to an American father and an Anglo-Irish mother, the Chandlers lived mostly in Chicago, where Chandler remembered as a kid seeing “a cop shoot a little white dog to death.” He suffered through scarlet fever in a cheap hotel room where his parents had come to roost during hard times, after which his father, “an utter swine,” abandoned his wife and child in 1895. Mother and son went back to Ireland, then on to England, where there were concerned relatives. Chandler went to a second-tier English public school named Dulwich, where he was a contemporary of William Henry Pratt, who became Boris Karloff. The concerned relatives pegged young Raymond for the Civil Service; Chandler, however, toured the Continent for almost a year, where he learned French and German. Upon coming back, the no-longer-callow Ray borrowed money and left for Los Angeles with his mother in tow. When the Great War broke out, Chandler joined a Canadian regiment and had a distinguished service record in the Gordon Highlanders.

Chandler arrived back in Los Angeles in 1919 sporting “a beautiful wardrobe, a public school accent, and no practical gifts for earning a living.” He also had a “contempt for the natives” that came in handy when the time arrived to write detective novels. For a while he picked apricots and strung tennis rackets, studied accounting at night school, and finally caught on with the Dabney Oil Syndicate, learning to drink heavily and chase skirts. He cared for and lived with his mother until she died, at which time he married his beloved Cissy, 18 years his senior, though she claimed to be only seven. It was a love that lasted until Cissy died in the early 1950s. The drinking, though, along with the Depression, cost him his job at Dabney. He taught himself to write hard-boiled detective fiction in order to survive, developing a special vernacular he brought to life in stories for Black Mask magazine. By 1940 he was a success. It was always he and Cissy against the world, and they did pretty well, despite the fact that Chandler was mostly lost in the void.

Englishman Barry Day is a playwright and producer of musical revues, with a long history editing compilations like this one. He has previously concentrated on the likes of Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Johnny Mercer and P.G. Wodehouse, making a specialty of Noel Coward. In “The World of Raymond Chandler,” Day allows Chandler free rein, building through correspondence, occasional essays and copious renderings from Chandler’s novels and stories a vivid artistic portrait of a man who described himself as having “no home.” Day constructs his portrait of Chandler with skill and acumen, honing an accurate picture of the artist, his milieu, personal views and opinions, writing habits, living environment, tics and complaints, friendships, prejudices and fantasies. Fortunately, Chandler was an inveterate letter writer, even committing himself to a number of in-depth literary essays on genre writing and detective fiction in particular.

He was, like Dashiell Hammett before him, astonished at the corruption of society in general, and of the cops, government and business in particular. He liked the simplicity of Los Angeles in 1912; he despised its smoggy enormity thirty years later when everything had changed. As he wrote his English publisher, “I have lost Los Angeles. It is no longer the place I knew so well and was almost the first to put on paper. I have that feeling, not very unusual, that I helped create the town and was then pushed out of it by the operators. I can hardly find my way around any longer. I know damn well that I sound like a bitter and disappointed man. I guess I am at that.”

This is a fine and honorable book, one that fans of Chandler and newcomers to his work can enjoy. Divided into chapters covering important topics like writing, cops and crime, “The City of the Angels,” Hollywood, Dames — and, eventually, the end times without Cissy, when Chandler was robbed of his reason, “The World of Raymond Chandler” also has a wonderful chronology and a short biography, hitting the highs and lows. Likewise important is a collection of more than 100 beautiful black-and-white photographs that illustrate the book throughout, each carefully chosen. The chapters on Chandler’s work in Hollywood (he helped Billy Wilder write “Double Indemnity,” and authored an original screenplay called “The Blue Dahlia”), the city of Los Angeles, and the writing life have original value and coherence.

Chandler died of pneumonia in 1959, lost, alone and drunk. Day describes him as a man with no real political agenda, apart from a distrust of power in any form. His philosophy of life, picked up at an early age, was that the whole business consisted of, “today a pat on the back, tomorrow a kick in the teeth.” “The World of Raymond Chandler” is a finely made book, and an excellent addition to the already large literature about a man who wrote not about crime and detection, but about the “corruption of the human spirit.” No matter how crowded the shelf, there is always room for one more good book. And this is surely one of those.

Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.

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