Chandler, Raymond 1888-1959
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, poet, and critic.
Along with Dashiell Hammett, Chandler elevated the genre known as the hard-boiled detective story into an American art form still imitated in literature, television, and motion pictures. Chandler's short fiction, following the formula writing required by the genre, is marked by lurid violence and action but displays his wisecracking wit, knack for dialogue, and love of metaphor and simile. The stories feature alienated middle-aged male characters—often private eyes—with high ideals who work against great odds to right wrongs. Unlike contemporary English mystery writers, who employed intricate plotting and puzzle-solving, and portrayed stereotypical characters and events, Chandler placed more emphasis on developing his characters and their motivations and used a sophisticated literary style that was uncommon in the pulp detective genre. In addition, his works, set primarily in Los Angeles in the 1930s, represent to many the essence of southern California: the superficialities of Hollywood, crime and vice glossed over with wealth, the cult of glamor, and a certain enduring mystery that eludes precise definition.
Chandler was born in Chicago. When he was seven years old, his parents divorced and he was taken by his mother to live in England. While there he received a thorough education in the classics and displayed a strong interest in languages. As a young man Chandler wrote poetry, reviews, and essays for The Academy and The Westminster Gazette. When he returned to the United States at the age of 24, however, he settled in California and opted for a career as a businessman in the oil industry. After losing his job many years later, he began to study the pulp detective magazines such as Black Mask, and familiarized himself with the narrative devices of such successful authors in the genre as Erle Stanley Gardner—creator of Perry Mason—and Dashiell Hammett. Chandler developed a mastery of the American language in its slang and idiom, later commenting that he preferred it to the language spoken in England because of its vitality and versatility. Ultimately, he brought his highly original talent for characterization and description to the market with considerable success. A slower and more methodical worker than most of his fellow detective-fiction writers, his alcoholism and the long-term illness of his mucholder wife, Cissy, affected his ability to produce much work toward the end of his life, though the writing he left behind after his death in 1958 continues to generate interest and debate, as well as to inspire imitators.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Chandler's initial efforts in fiction were short stories written for pulp detective magazines such as Black Mask and, later, Dime Detective. In the beginning, he had little experience with mystery stories, either as a reader or a writer. He taught himself the tough-guy form by rewriting plots that appeared in the magazines and in 1933 he submitted his first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," to Black Mask. This dark tale of extortion and racketeering contains all the hard-boiled genre's conventional tropes: violence, corrupt officials, gangsters and gun molls, and a detective with a fast gun and a code of ethics. In the next five years Chandler published sixteen short stories of the same ilk, mostly in Black Mask. They feature early prototypes of his hero, detective Philip Marlowe, and display Chandler's growing adeptness with dialogue, characterization, thematic development, and the voice and viewpoint of the detective figure. In these early pieces, Chandler experimented with style and narrative technique, eventually finding the most success with the first-person point of view. His privateeye heroes are essentially the same in each work—grizzled and alienated romantics who hold to an ideal of gallantry. By the late 1930s Chandler was feeling limited by the short story form and turned his attention to novels. The greater popularity of these works allowed the publication of his collected short stories. Five Murders appeared in 1944, five years after his first major novel, The Big Sleep, was published. Other short story collections surfaced routinely after that, though the stories were primarily written prior to the period in which Chandler wrote his novels. The collections include Five Sinister Characters (1945), Red Wind (1946), and Pearls Are a Nuisance (1953). From these stories he created the plots for his early novels through a process he termed "cannibalizing"—a method in which he reworked several previously published pieces of short fiction into a sustained story.
Many modern-day critics see Chandler's short stories as a training ground for his novels. While some commentators have described these early works as formula pieces, poorly plotted, overly talkative, and contrived, others have observed that the crisp, declarative style, terse characterization, wit, and ominous tone of Chandler's novels can be discerned in his stories, which served as a training ground for the author. Chandler himself said that if he had written too well for the pulp magazines, he would not have been published. His writing style and several opening scenes in his novels and short stories still elicit considerable admiration. Nevertheless the hard-boiled detective type and Chandler's use of metaphors and similes have been more often parodied than praised. The majority of critics acknowledge that Chandler's use of simile is somewhat overdone and that his writing is occasionally marred by sentimentality but most also note that his work has a literary sophistication, which some critics have remarked elevated the genre to the level of an art form. Throughout his career, critics have noted his weak plotting and narrative structure, pointing out that he preferred to develop character and style. Overall, it is for these latter two qualities, as well as for an arresting and gritty portrayal of southern California in the 1930s, that Chandler's works of short fiction are chiefly praised.
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