Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler
The great revelation of Frank MacShane’s excellent biography, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976), was that Chandler the novelist was also a marvelous letter writer. MacShane used fragments of Chandler’s letters to stitch his narrative together, quoting extensively from them throughout the book. Now MacShane has edited a generous selection of the letters, confirming Chandler’s distinction where so many gifted writers have been disappointing.
The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler has already received the highest praise. Chandler’s voice in these letters is intimate, conversational. They are an invitation to a writer’s world, with the talk shifting from dust jacket photos and reprint rights to brilliant, offhand analysis of writing and writers. The creator of Philip Marlowe is also quick with a one-liner. He says of Edmund Wilson—a favorite antagonist—that the Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) make “fornication as dull as a railroad time table.” Of James Cain he says that “everything he writes smells like a billy goat.” Of the pulp magazine where he went to school, Chandler observes that a “lot of Black Mask stories sounded alike, just as a lot of Elizabethan plays sound alike. Always when a group exploits a new technique this happens.”
Reviewers of the Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler have rightly singled out these qualities for praise—his voice, his informal writing lessons, his wit—yet having done this, one must step back and look at the book as a whole. This collection of letters tells a story; it has a plot. Frank MacShane calls Chandler’s a “sad but decent life,” but that does not go far enough. Chandler’s letters reveal a defensiveness bordering on paranoia and an urge to cut all “competitors” down to size. They reveal a proud man wrestling with self-contempt, a mind torn by raging contradictions.
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888. In 1895, after his father abandoned the family, Chandler moved to England with his mother. He attended Dulwich College, one of the better English public schools, where he received a good classical education. Chandler wanted to be a writer, and after a two-year sojourn in France and Germany he worked for several years on the fringes of literary journalism in London. During this period he published, by Frank MacShane’s count, twenty-seven poems (intensely romantic, “cloying and saccharine”), seven essays, and a handful of reviews and short anonymous newspaper pieces. Discouraged by his lack of literary success, Chandler left England for America in 1912, at the age of twenty-three.
He settled in California and began a series of short-term jobs. In 1917, he enlisted in the Canadian Army and saw heavy front-line action in France in 1918. After his discharge he returned to California, where he began working in the oil business, starting in the accounting department but quickly rising to the executive level; he was vice-president of several companies. Chandler got married in 1924, when he was thirty-five and his wife, Cissy—who had to divorce her husband to marry Chandler—was a young-looking fifty-three. Within a few years he was drinking so heavily that—after repeated warnings—he was fired from his oil-company job in 1932.
Chandler began writing again, and after several unsuccessful attempts at serious “straight” fiction he discovered the “pulps” specializing in detective stories, particularly Black Mask, which featured Dashiell Hammett. In 1933, Chandler, at the age of forty-five, published his first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” in Black Mask. He continued to publish stories until 1939, when he published his first novel, The Big Sleep, his breakthrough. From that time on he was a novelist and—for a long stint in Hollywood in the 1940’s—a screenwriter.
Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler picks up Chandler’s story in 1939 (there are only two earlier letters included, both from 1937), when he had decisively established himself as...
(The entire section is 1,553 words.)