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Raymond Chandler

It was a Monday, July 23, 1888.  It was hot, and it was windy, the wind being particularly bothersome that day.  The city sweltered, and while it sweltered, Mrs. Chandler brought her son, Raymond, into the world. 

Raymond Chandler, a leading proponent of the hardboiled crime genre, is best known for his novels about private detective Philip Marlow, such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954).  He's one of the originators of hardboiled crime and is known more for the style and atmosphere of his novels than for his elaborate plots.  "I guess maybe there are two kinds of writers," Chandler said once, "writers who write stories and writers who write writing."

Chandler began writing stories for crime fiction magazine Black Mask, which also published Dashiell Hammett's work.  Chandler's Marlowe character was named after 16th century English writer, Christopher Marlowe, who had a violent temper.  As representative and master of the hardboiled school of crime fiction, Chandler criticized classical whodunnit writers for turning their back on realism.  His most famous target in his often quoted essay, The Simple Art of Murder (1944), is A. A. Milne's The Red House Mystery.

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.  It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man.  But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  The detective in this kind of story must be such a man." - from The Simple Art of Murder

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago, but he grew up in England after his parents divorced.  Chandler was raised by his mother, grandmother, and aunt.  He attended Dulwich College Preparatory School in London and studied international law in France and Germany.  He worked as a an assistant stores officer in the Naval Supplies Branch and as a substitute teacher at Dulwich College; and he published poems and essays in the Academy, the Chamber's Journal, and Westminstern Gazette.

In America, he worked for a short time in St. Louis, then on a ranch, in a sporting goods firm, and as a bookkeeper in a creamery.  He served in the Canadian Army during World War I (1917-18) before being transferred to the Royal Air Force (1918-19).  In 1924, he married Pearl Cecily Hurlburt, 18 years his senior, who was twice married and divorced.  When she wed Chandler, she was fifty-three, although she looked far younger and listed her age as forty-three.

After the war, Chandler worked in a bank in San Francisco, wrote for the Daily Express, and took a job as a bookkeeper and auditor for the Dabney Oil Syndicate from 1922 to 1932.  When he lost his job during the Great Depression--he was fired for binge drinking and absenteeism--he began writing stories for Black Mask Magazine.  At the age of forty-five, with the support of his wife, Chandler devoted himself entirely to writing.  He prepared himself for his first submission by carefully studying Erle Stanley Gardner and other representatives of pulp fiction and spent five months writing his first story, Blackmailers Don't Shoot.  It appeared in December, 1933, in Black Mask, which was foremost among magazines publishing hardboiled crime.

"The pebbled glass door pane is lettered in flaked black paint: 'Philip Marlowe... Investigations.'  It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization.  The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked.  Come on in--there is nobody in here but me and a big blue bottle.  But not if you're from Manhattan, Kansas." - from The Little Sister, 1949

His fourth published story, Killer in the Rain, was used in The Big Sleep (1939), Chandler's first novel.  The story introduced Philip Marlowe, a 38-year-old P. I., a man of honor, and a modern day knight with a college education.  Marlowe is about forty, tall, with gray eyes and a hard jaw, has a college education, listens to classical music, and solves chess problems.  He is betrayed by his friends, women, and lying clients, but he is always quick with wisecracks. 

In his role as narrator, Marlowe moves through the criminal world and social elite, often not very different, of Los Angeles in the 1930s.  In The Big Sleep, he helps General Sternwood, a paralyzed California millionaire, by rescuing his daughter from a potentially embarrassing blackmail scheme.  The story ends in resigned contemplation: "What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? ... you were not bothered by things like that.  You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell..."  The story was made into a 1946 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, with William Faulkner writing the screenplay.

The New Yorker magazine called it a "Pretty terrifying story of degeneracy."

In 1954, when his wife died, Chandler was devastated.  He plunged more deeply than ever into drink, although he somehow managed to produce more great fiction.  Two months after her death, he attempted suicide, the errant bullet causing major damage to the bathroom.  During the last year of his life, Chandler was president of the Mystery Writers of America.  His health in general was fading, although he is rumored to have had a romantic fling with his secretary, Jean Fracasse.

Despite his physical decline, Chandler published Playback, his last finished novel, in 1958.   years later.  Originally written as a screenplay, it's the story of Marlowe's renewed affair with Linda Loring, who made her first appearance in The Long Goodbye.  During the writing process, Chandler took Helga Greene for his literary agent.  He and Greene were persuaded by Ian Fleming to travel to Capri, stopping off in Naples to interview Lucky Luciano.  Chandler's article, My Friend Luco, shows that the author's grasp of reality was failing; it was the worst thing he had ever written.

In 1959, Helga Greene flew out to California, and Chandler proposed to her from his hospital bed, with its clean white sheets and white lights and pillows.  Before they married, he died of pneumonia brought on by a particularly heavy drinking binge, which some people claim is the best kind.  It was a cool spring day on March 23, 1959.  The sun was shining somewhere, just as it had shone for him in Helga's eyes.  He remembered turning 70.  He looked back on his life, and he closed his eyes and remembered nothing more.

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