Raymond Chandler died in La Jolla, California, in 1959. Tom Hiney, a London journalist, was not born until 1970. His English perspective and his youthful perspective on a much older American writer constitute both the strength and the weakness of his biography. He makes the reader realize how the British feel about Chandler and how the younger generation perceives him. Although Hiney is a competent writer, there is a strong feeling of geographical and chronological distance. Hiney seems most comfortable writing about Chandler’s early years in England and his return visits to England before his death. When writing about American pulp magazines or Hollywood, or when trying to summarize Chandler’s novels, Hiney sounds like an intelligent foreigner who has read a considerable amount about his subject but remains somewhat confused. When Hiney writes about Chandler’s boyhood in Nebraska, for example, he draws on Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899) for his description of the American Midwest. His only other information about life in that flat, agrarian environment is gleaned from remarks in Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949) and The Long Goodbye (1953).
Hiney’s short biography can hardly be called definitive. The reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement states correctly that “Frank McShane’s excellent 1976 biography remains unrivalled.” Hiney’s book seems intended to stake a British claim to Raymond Chandler. It will be pleasing to some and exasperating to others that Hiney, representing a new generation of Chandler admirers, believes that “Chandler will outlive most other writers of this century.”
Chandler had such a strange transatlantic early life that it is hard to classify him as either American or British. The British, no doubt, would like to claim him because he is extremely important in their country. Chandler was actually born in Chicago in 1888 but moved to England with his mother in 1895, after his father deserted them. He was educated in English schools and acquired English upper-class values.
Hiney devotes considerable space to a description of Dulwich College, where young Chandler studied French, German, and Spanish as preparation for a business career but also immersed himself in the Greek and Roman classics. A major influence in Chandler’s early life was A. H. Gilkes, headmaster of Dulwich, who took the place of the young man’s absentee father. Hiney thinks that Chandler’s character was shaped by this eccentric, bearded giant, who stressed tradition, gentlemanly conduct, education, and morality.
The dynamic interrelationship between Chandler’s elitist education and his exposure to the mean streets of America’s cities accounts for the piquancy of his style. When Chandler began writing pulp fiction late in life, he needed the money but could not bring himself to write in the lowbrow vernacular characteristic of the pulps. Fortunately, “Cap” Joseph Shaw, editor of the famous Black Mask magazine, appreciated the superior literary values Chandler was subtly, somewhat mischievously, inserting into a hackneyed genre. Chandler admired Dashiell Hammett but could see what was lacking in Hammett’s fiction—and even more conspicuously lacking in the works of the penny-a-word hacks. Hammett seemed to write in black and white, while Chandler wrote in color.
After being fired from the oil company where he had been an executive with a very comfortable income, Chandler was never free from financial worries until he began writing for the movies. His apprenticeship as cowriter with Billy Wilder on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1944) is well known. Chandler had mixed feelings about Hollywood. Essentially, he respected the film medium but not many of its practitioners. He wrote:
An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer.
Like the reporter in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), Hiney, a professional journalist, goes over the well-worn trail of his subject’s life but fails to identify what might be called the “Rosebud,” the key that cracks the code. Like the viewer of Citizen Kane, however, the reader of Raymond Chandler: A Biography may see what the young reporter missed. What was it that drove Chandler to drink, and why did a mere crime writer become, as novelist Evelyn Waugh described him, “the greatest living American novelist”? What keeps Chandler’s reputation alive while many other writers—including Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John O’Hara, Thomas Wolfe, W. Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, and Aldous Huxley, to name only a few—are becoming names to which the...
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