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.
Five Murders 1944
Five Sinister Characters 1945
Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories 1946
Spanish Blood 1946
Finger Man and Other Stories 1947
The Simple Art of Murder 1950
Trouble Is My Business: Four Stories from "The Simple Art of Murder" 1951
Pick-Up on Noon Street 1952
Pearls Are a Nuisance 1953
Killer in the Rain 1964
The Smell of Fear 1965
Smart-Aleck Kill 1976
Other Major Works
The Big Sleep (novel) 1939
Farewell, My Lovely (novel) 1940
The High Window (novel) 1942
The Lady in the Lake (novel) 1943
The Little Sister (novel) 1949
The Long Goodbye (novel) 1953
Playback (novel) 1958
Raymond Chandler Speaking (letters, essays, short story, and unfinished novel) 1962
Chandler Before Marlowe: Raymond Chandler's Early Prose and Poetry, 1908-1912 (poetry, essays, and criticism) 1973
The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler and " English Summer: A Gothic Romance" (notebooks...
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SOURCE: "The Simple Art of Murder," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 174, No. 6, December, 1944, pp. 53-9.
[In the following essay, Chandler describes what he believes is good mystery fiction.]
The detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Second-rate items outlast most of the high-velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about as dull.
This fact is annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked "Best-sellers of Yesteryear" or something, and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly, and hurries away; while at the same time old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with such a title as The Triple Petunia Murder Case or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it at all that "really important books" (and some of them are too, in a way) get the frosty mitt at the reprint counter while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the newsstands of the...
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SOURCE: "Close-up of Chandler," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIII, No. 1618, March 16, 1962, pp. 379-80.
[In the following review of Raymond Chandler Speaking, Priestley assesses Chandler's story-telling skills and his efforts to turn murder mysteries into literature. ]
Raymond Chandler Speaking offers us various unpublished pieces, including several chapters from the novel he left unfinished at his death, and a large number of letters written to his publishers, agents, fellow writers and various friends. It is a rather more solid book than it would first appear to be, and Chandler's many admirers will find it good value. Young writers chiefly concerned with the novel of action and violence should not miss it, for Chandler, at his best a master of this kind of fiction, has much to say that deserves their attention.
Though I make no appearance in these pages, I was in fact among the first over here to praise him in print. (Like many good American writers, he was properly appreciated here before he was given any serious consideration in his own country, as he himself points out.) After exchanging several letters with him, I accepted an invitation, early in 1951, to break my journey from Mexico to Santa Monica and spend a few days with him at La Jolla, a small seaside town not far from San Diego. It is the setting of his last completed novel, Playback.
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SOURCE: "Man with a Toy Gun," in The New Republic, Vol. 146, No. 19, May 7, 1962, pp. 21-2.
[In the following review of Raymond Chandler Speaking, Pollock describes Chandler's writings in light of significant events in his life. ]
Following in Dashiell Hammett's footsteps, Raymond Chandler brought a new vigor to detective fiction. His books sold in the millions but they were detective stories not serious literature, and so he was never invited to join the Boys in the Back Room, not even for a short beer. He died in La Jolla, California, March 26, 1959, at the age of 70. Raymond Chandler Speaking is a collection of excerpts from letters to friends, publishers, agents, and others during the forties and fifties. It also contains an unpublished short story, two articles, and the opening chapters of a new Philip Marlowe novel called The Poodle Springs Story which he did not live to finish.
Chandler began writing seriously in the thirties after losing a job with a California oil company. He wrote for money from the very beginning and he sold stories with titles like "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," "Nevada Gas," and "Guns at Cyrano's" to magazines with names like Black Mask and Dime Detective Monthly. In 1939 he published his first full-length book, The Big Sleep, and in 1943 he went to Hollywood. No one could accuse him of selling out.
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SOURCE: "The Tale-Teller," in Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight, The University of North Carolina Press, 1963, pp. 22-30.
[In the following essay, Durham examines Chandler's published short stories, praising his evocative descriptions of character and the city of Los Angeles. ]
Thousands of ghost-like flimsy wooden derricks were standing throughout the Los Angeles Basin, the Dabney-Johnston Oil Corporation (soon to move to tiny quarters at 620 West Olympic Boulevard with only one company, the South Basin, remaining) was still operating, but Raymond Chandler, in 1933, was no longer in the oil business. His separation from business, although primarily for economic reasons, was hardly less abrupt than was Sherwood Anderson's a few years before.
When Anderson decided to leave the world of business, he did it (so he said) in dramatic fashion. In his factory office he turned to his secretary, saying, "My feet are cold, wet and heavy from long wading in a river. Now I shall go walk on dry land." Going through the door, a "delicious thought" came to him: "Oh, you little tricky words, you are my brothers. It is you, not myself, have lifted me over this threshold. It is you who have dared give me a hand. For the rest of my life, I will be a servant to you." So thinking, he went out of the town, out of that phase of his life.
Raymond Chandler left...
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SOURCE: "The Technique," in Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight, The University of North Carolina Press, 1963, pp. 106-29.
[In the following essay, Durham analyzes Chandler's narrative technique, noting his lively prose, elegant expression, and belief that style was more important than plot]
In England early in 1954 Ralph Partridge, in The New Statesman and Nation, wrote that although there was a "jarring note of sentimentality" in The Long Goodbye, the "crusading" Marlowe was, nevertheless, a "remarkable creation"—"the perpetually crucified redeemer of all our modern sins." Almost alone among the reviewers, Partridge commented on Chandler's writing technique: "Mr. Chandler's style by now can be regarded as fixed . . . [his] language has lost none of its impetus, the rhythm of his prose is superb, and the intensity of feeling he packs into his pages makes every other thriller-writer look utterly silly and superficial." With the publication of The Long Goodbye, it was well that Mr. Partridge looked to what he considered Chandler's "fixed" style, for although no one knew it at the time Chandler had only one more book to write, and from that book much of the style had fled. "In the long run," Chandler once wrote, "however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Killer in the Rain, by Raymond Chandler, Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1964, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following essay, Durham discusses Chandler's efforts to develop his short detective stories into serious novels concerned with themes of social injustice. ]
During his lifetime Raymond Chandler published twenty-three short stories. Yet of this relatively small output only fifteen are generally known to the reading public. For a quarter of a century the remaining eight have lain buried in the crumbling pages of old pulp magazines. And these eight stories are among his finest.
For one who became, with Dashiell Hammett, a leading writer of 'the poetry of violence', it is odd indeed that Chandler should have published his first story at the age of forty-five. When this first story, 'Blackmailers Don't Shoot', appeared in December 1933, Chandler was only one of the many good writers of the old Black Mask school. But when he died in 1959 he had been translated and published in eighteen countries and his work was sought throughout the world by those who recognized a good story and appreciated artistry in detective fiction.
Born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Chandler went, as a small boy, to England with his mother. There he grew up and received his education, excelling in the classics at Dulwich College. Shortly after reaching his majority he returned to...
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SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler & An American Genre," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 149-73.
[In the following essay, Beekman maintains that Chandler's writings transcend the ordinary limitations of mystery-detective fiction through the author's acute consciousness of style and expert use of simile, metaphor, and characterization. ]
The Traditional Detective Novel is not a novel at all but an intellectual game on the level of acrostics or checkers. Like any other game it answers to certain strict rules and such injunctions have been legislated by such early practitioners as Dorothy Sayers, S. S. Van Dine, Freeman Wills Crofts, not to mention scores of articles and histories of the genre. As in the nature of games, one is either addicted to whodunits or one despises them.
A famous supporter is W. H. Auden who, in a fascinating essay written with a pen dipped in Holy Water, not only openly confesses to addiction ("like tobacco or alcohol") and enjoins strictures as moral as Scripture and as interdictory as Aristotle (Aquinas would have been proud of the performance), but also expels one particular writer from this innocent Eden of crime and punishment.
Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and...
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SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler: An Aesthete Discovers the Pulps," in Critical Observations, Ticknor & Fields, 1981, pp. 156-65.
[In the following essay, Symons traces stylistic developments in Chandler's works and characterizes the author as a romantic aesthete primarily concerned with the literary quality of his writings.]
Fairyland is Everyman's dream of perfection, and changes, dream-like, with the mood of the dreamer. For one it is a scene of virgin, summery Nature undefiled by even the necessary works of man . . . For another it is a champaign, dotted with fine castles, in which live sweet ladies clad in silk, spinning, and singing as they spin, and noble knights who do courteous battle with each other in forest glades; or a region of uncanny magic, haunting music, elves and charmed airs and waters.
That is Raymond Chandler writing in 1912 for The Academy.
The man in the powder-blue suit—which wasn't powder-blue under the lights of the Club Bolivar—was tall, with wide-set grey eyes, a thin nose, a jaw of stone. He had a rather sensitive mouth. His hair was crisp and black, ever so faintly touched with grey, as by an almost diffident hand. His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past. His name happened to be Mallory.
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SOURCE: "The Raw Material: The Short Stories," in Raymond Chandler, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, pp. 85-104.
[In the following essay, Speir discusses how Chandler's short stories evolved into novels and argues that the pulp stories were an essential stage in Chandler's development as a novelist. ]
Chandler's novels, of course, followed his noteworthy career as a writer of short stories for popular "pulp" magazines. A survey of those stories gives evidence of considerable experimentation in subject matter, style, point of view, and detective types which contributed to the novels' later success. Some of the stories were "cannibalized," as Chandler put it, into the novels, and a close look at that process allows us the unusual opportunity of observing the writer at work, transforming his own earlier, simpler material into the broader vision of the later books. But even the stories that weren't cannibalized have much to teach us about Chandler's development as a writer, and it seems appropriate here to look back at those stories for the deeper appreciation they may give us of the novels and the novelist.
From a purely artistic perspective some of these twentytwo detective/mystery short stories are considerably more successful than others. All, we should bear in mind, were written for a very specific market with rather rigorous demands for violence. Some meet that demand in a fairly...
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SOURCE: "Chandler in the Thirties: Apprenticeship of an Angry Man," in Book Forum, Vol. VI, No. 2, 1982, pp. 143-53.
[In the following essay, Meador discusses Chandler's early writing career, tracing the development of his use of language and his social attitudes, while also describing the creation of his chief fictional hero—Detective Philip Marlowe. ]
Los Angeles in the 1930s was not a sleepy village as Marlowe describes it in The Little Sister. The city he sentimentally recalls there is adrift somewhere in the past, kept alive through the remembering words of Raymond Chandler:
I used to like this town. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers . . . Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful. It had the climate they yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches.
In this passage, Chandler's memory was turning back a calendar of decades rather than years to early in the century. The Los Angeles of hustle and threat that Marlowe faced in the 30s was rather different. Colliers reported in 1938 that Los Angeles had 600 brothels, 300 gambling houses, 1,800 bookies, and 23,000 one-armed bandits. It was a city with ample...
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SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler: The Smell of Fear," in Which Way Did He Go?: The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald, Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982, pp. 33-52.
[In the following essay, Margolies presents an overview of Chandler's career, commenting on his themes, style, and characters, as well as placing his works in their cultural and historical contexts.]
Raymond Chandler was [Dashiell] Hammett's principal successor—his melancholy, tough-talking hero, Philip Marlowe, is one of the best-known and widely imitated popular heroes of the 1940s. Marlowe is a six-foot-tall, thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who works for himself because he is too much of an individualist to take orders from others. He is not very successful financially—his office is somewhat shabby and his living quarters spare—not because he cannot find clients but because he can be neither bought off nor scared off by the rich, the police, or by gangsters. He respects courage and physical endurance and tells us he has no use for homosexuals. His integrity and his laconic wit are his armor, but in a corrupt world he can be very lonely. The vulnerabilities with which his creator endowed him were Chandler's own, and are among the things that make him attractive.
Chandler's is a curious case. Although we like to think of him as writing quintessentially American stuff,...
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SOURCE: "Looking for a Knight: The Short Stories," in Raymond Chandler, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 51-72.
[In the following essay, Marling surveys Chandler's short stories, addressing issues of plot, character, and style in each. ]
Before he invented Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Chandler created prototypes in gambler Johnny De Ruse, policeman Sam Delaguerra, vice detective Pete Anglich, hotel dick Steve Grayce, and man-about-town Ted Malvern. His best effort was a private detective named Mallory, after the author of Le Morte d'Arthur. Later Chandler changed his name to Carmady, and finally to John Dalmas.
Mallory appears in Chandler's first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" (Black Mask, December 1933). While the story is primitive compared to his later efforts, and flawed by clichéd dialogue, motiveless actions, and pointless turns of plot, it was relatively polished by Black Mask standards.
Private detective Mallory comes to Los Angeles from Chicago, Chandler's birthplace, at the request of a gambler named Landry. His love letters to former girlfriend and film star Rhonda Farr have been stolen. The blackmail becomes kidnapping when a gang of crooked cops, politicians, and crooks, led by her own lawyer, snatch Farr and Mallory. He escapes, turns the tables by kidnapping the lawyer, then frees Farr while the gang members kill each...
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SOURCE: "Raymond Chandler's Smoking Gun," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 29, September 25, 1995, pp. 99-102, 104.
[In the following essay, Wolcott discusses Chandler's works in light of current literary tastes. ]
Lined up on the shelves in their glossy black jackets, the books constituting the Library of America resemble tiny, shiny coffins. Modelled on the portable French Pléiades editions of classic authors, the Library of America is the final resting place for writers—where they receive their induction into the canon and a chance for rediscovery by the common reader, assuming there are any left. Until now, the authors whom the Library has chosen have been mostly safe and genteel—illustrious pilgrims in what Alfred Kazin has called "the American procession." With the induction of Raymond Chandler, the American procession sidesteps to fetch its latest recruit. The creator of Philip Marlowe and the man who brought a chin stubble of maturity to the cheeky face of cheap prose, Chandler is not only the first detective writer to be inaugurated into the hall of fame but the first outright popular-fiction practitioner—a genre artist. (Edgar Allan Poe, the original psychic astronaut in the spheres of science fiction, horror, and mystery, practiced metaphysical witchcraft using his skull as the bubbling pot, and was too oddball-baroque to be strictly categorized as a genre writer.) Chandler is also a...
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SOURCE: A review of Raymond Chandler: Stories & Early Novels and Later Novels & Other Writings, in The American Spectator, Vol. 28, No. 11, November, 1995, pp. 78-9.
[In the following review, Lyons favorably critiques the Library of America's two-volume edition of Chandler's collected writing.]
The Library of America has just issued a two-volume edition of Raymond Chandler—pulp fiction on Olympus! When word came to Chandler in the Elysian Fields that he was to report for a meeting with Emerson and Melville, he must have felt, somewhat like his hero Philip Marlowe:
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Thus begins Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep. At the time of its publication in 1939, the art of detective fiction had only half-emerged from the chrysalis of the cheap magazines. Dashiell Hammett was his only weighty predecessor, and Chandler gave Hammett full marks for...
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Bruccoli, Matthew J. Raymond Chandler: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979, 146 p.
Thorough primary bibliography with a selection of secondary materials.
MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York: Dutton, 1976, 306 p.
Definitive source on Chandler's life, beliefs, and writings.
Elliott, George P. "Raymond Chandler." In A Piece of Lettuce: Personal Essays on Books, Beliefs, American Places, and Growing Up in a Strange Country, pp. 50-65. New York: Random House, 1957.
Explores Chandler's value as a literary writer and his moral views.
Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of Raymond Chandler. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, 189 p.
Important collection of critical and biographical essays on Chandler—some written by close friends of the writer.
Hamilton, Cynthia S. "Raymond Chandler." In Western and Hard-boiled Detective Fiction in America: From High Noon to Midnight, pp. 146-71. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.
Discusses Chandler's detective stories and novels as examples of American adventure fiction.
Highsmith, Patricia. "A Galahad in L. A." The Times Literary...
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