Raymond Chandler was one of the most influential American crime-writers of all time. His battered, moral, cynical detective Philip Marlowe has become an archetype of the genre, endlessly recycled and referenced. Here are ten facts about the writer.
1/ A quintessentially American author, Chandler spent much of his early life in England. At the age of 12 he moved with his parents to South London, and was educated at Dulwich College, where he resided at, yes, Marlowe House. Becoming a British citizen, he worked in the civil service and as a journalist before moving back to the States in 1912.
2/ Chandler didn’t start writing till he was 44 when he was laid off as an oil company executive for his continual drunkenness. But writing success came slowly. His seven novels: The Big sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady In The Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, Playback and Poodle Springs are regarded as classics (well, the first five at least), but the early novels struggled to sell and it wasn’t until Hollywood started taking an interest that his fortunes changed.
3/ Philip Marlowe – named after the famous Elizabethan writer and secret agent – didn’t appear fully-formed. There were a number of prototypes of the character in Chandler’s many short stories, variously named Mallory, John Dalmas and Ted Carmady. When Chandler later compiled those early stories he simply changed the name of his various protagonists to Marlowe. He was a terrific recycler of his own material. Most of his novels were cannibalized from various short stories.
4/ His essay The Simple Art Of Murder from 1950 is one of the defining texts about crime fiction. He extols the virtue of the Black Mask school of hard-boiled detective novels while putting the boot into what he saw as contrived and formulaic English countryhouse murder mysteries. He demands that detective fiction must have a strong moral vision:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.
5/ Chandler’s adventures in Hollywood were unhappy. He was hired to work on the screenplay for Strangers On A Train – and is credited, although the script was largely rewritten– but Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock fell out big time. Chandler hated what he saw as endless script conferences – ‘god awful jabber sessions’ – and called Hitchcock a ‘fat bastard.’ He accused the director of being willing to sacrifice logic and coherence for dramatic effect, although this was the writer who also famously said: ‘When in doubt have a man with a gun in his hand come through the door.’
6/ Chandler also worked with Billy Wilder, with whom he also fell out. Chandler actually makes an uncredited cameo in Double Indemnity, sitting in a hallway reading a book as Fred MacMurray walks past. Astonishingly, this in-plain-sight cameo remained unnoticed by anyone for more than 60 years, until a French film historian spotted him.
7/ His only origjnal screenplay was The Blue Dahlia, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Chandler struggled with alcoholism all his life and during this period was teetotal. He decided that the only way to cure his writer’s block was to start drinking again. Working in a stupor, with limousines parked outside his house to ferry pages of script to the studio and a battery of secretaries on hand, Chandler got it finished. The producer of the film, John Houseman, said of those eight days: “Chandler did not draw one sober breath, nor did one speck of solid food pass his lips.”
8/ Like all irascible, insomniac drunks, Chandler liked to write a letter, and they’ve been published. They are by turns acerbic, combative, defensive and highly-entertaining. “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I intend that it should stay split.”
9/ Riddled by eczema, Chandler typed his novels wearing white gloves.
10/ His final novel Poodle Springs – in which Marlowe is married – was left unfinished when he died in 1959 and was later completed by crime writer Robert B. Parker. Emboldened by his encounter with Marlowe, Parker – brave man – wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep called Perchance To Dream.
And Marlowe, like other archetypes of the genre such as Holmes and Bond, continues to live on long after Chandler’s death. The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black – the crime-writing name of Booker winner John Banville – is published next year.