The Life of Raymond Chandler

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Even by Hollywood standards, Raymond Chandler was a strange figure. Aloof, arrogant, often touchy, he was an intellectual who was usually more comfortable with books than companions. At times he would withdraw, surly and uncommunicative, from the social whirl, or would disappear for days on solitary drinking binges. A lonely, embittered man, his life centered upon his writing—that, and his devotion to his wife. As Frank MacShane views Chandler, he was a naturally gifted artist who learned his craft painfully and late in life. Because he struggled nearly fifty years before he discovered a medium that suited his talents, he never fully relished the success that came to him at last. And because his marriage to Cissy, a woman almost twenty years his senior, became increasingly frustrating to him as they grew older, aging at an unequal pace, he lapsed into periodic episodes of sexual unfaithfulness, paying for his affairs a high price in anguish and guilt. For Chandler was a man marked by strong loyalties to the few whom he could love, a gentleman of the old school—dignified, rather inhibited, governed by a personal code of decorum. Outwardly cold, reserved, at times contemptuous of others, he was at heart a sentimentalist.

In this major biographical study, MacShane describes Chandler as a person very much like the character created by the author as his fictional alter ego, Philip Marlowe: a meticulous professional, tough but honorable, more sensitive than he ought to be, a man driven to rage by the crassness of the world. To be sure, the portrait shows differences as well. Marlowe’s toughness is physical rather than intellectual; he acts, whereas Chandler merely perceives; he is sexually aggressive instead of furtive; and he overcomes obstacles to his success, while Chandler distrusts the very metaphor of success. Marlowe walks down the “mean streets” of corrupt Los Angeles, secure at least in the knowledge of his own incorruptibility. Chandler is never so fortunate. From the time of his childhood in Nebraska, through the formative years of schooling in England, then the years of success and failure in Los Angeles, until the capping of his career with the reputation of a world-renowned writer, he struggles for integrity, security, and inner peace.

MacShane tells Chandler’s story in a straightforward, craftsmanlike fashion. His research is thorough, based mostly upon the wealth of correspondence collected by Mrs. Helga Greene, Chandler’s heir and executrix, and her son, Graham Carleton Greene. Other major sources of information are the files of letters from 1939 to 1959 held by Hamish Hamilton and Roger Machell, Chandler’s English publishers, and the correspondence collected by the writer’s agent, Carl Brandt. From these and other letters, for the most part, MacShane allows his subject to “tell his own story.” And the biography, indeed, carries the stamp of Chandler’s temperament: intelligent, reserved, undramatic, and coolly witty. Apparently MacShane was never acquainted with the writer; at least he never mentions any such connection. As a result his biography is free from a recital of trivial anecdotes or amateur psychological analyses that often mar life studies. On the other hand, the biography lacks a measure of warmth, perhaps owing to the same reason. MacShane is forced to examine Chandler from the vantage of the writer’s own deprecatory selfimage. “I have lived my life on the edge of nothing,” Chandler once wrote to his London solicitor. And to Carl Brandt he confessed, “I am not a completely amiable character any more than I am a facile and prolific writer. I do most things the hard way, and I suffer a good deal over it.” Although MacShane is sympathetic to the strengths in Chandler’s character—his great capacity to work, his resiliency, his artistic and intellectual probity, his loyalty to friends—he accepts in general the writer’s judgments about himself.

For that reason The Life of Raymond Chandler is measured, detached, unsentimental. Far more comprehensive than previous studies (Raymond Chandler Speaking, edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, 1962; Raymond Chandler, A Checklist, 1968, and Chandler Before Marlowe: Raymond Chandler’s Early Prose and Poetry 1908-1912, 1973, both edited by Matthew Bruccoli; and the pioneering critical work, Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go, 1963, by Philip Durham), MacShane’s Book—a full critical biography—will surely be the standard source for the author in our time.

Without attempting a rigorous psychological investigation of Chandler’s behavior, MacShane traces early in his life the origins of a pattern of disrupted family relationships leading to neurosis. Chandler’s father, to whom the son referred as “an utter swine,” deserted the family in Nebraska before the boy was seven. His mother, after obtaining a divorce, sailed with Raymond to England, where they moved into a modest but comfortable place in Upper Norwood in the suburbs south of London. Here also lived the boy’s grandmother and Aunt Ethel in a strict, matriarchal household, where “he could never fully relax.” The man of the house, he was “forced into a position of responsibility long before he was capable of accepting it.” His sense of loyalty to his mother was to become, according to MacShane, “a central part of his character.”

During the summer holidays Chandler and his mother would visit their Irish relations at Waterford. Here also, with the snobbish Thornton family, the boy was reminded of his dependant position in a rigid, class-conscious society. Because the Thorntons had money, Chandler was enrolled in Dulwich, a good but not superior private school, where he entered the First Form in 1900. An excellent student, especially in Classics, his sense of class distinctions was strengthened at Dulwich. Each boy was taught his place. In addition, as part...

(The entire section is 2434 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Best Sellers. XXXVI, September, 1976, p. 198.

Economist. CCLX, July 3, 1976, p. 67.

Los Angeles Times. June 27, 1976, Books, p. 3.

New York Times Book Review. May 16, 1976, p. 1.

Time. CVII, June 21, 1976, p. 42.

Times Literary Supplement. June 18, 1976, p. 733.

Village Voice. XXI, May 29, 1976, p. 42.