One of America’s most beloved writers, the man who elevated hardboiled detective fiction from pulp magazines to bourgeois literary circles, was born Raymond Thornton Chandler on July 23, 1888. Though he was associated with Los Angeles for much of his life, Chandler had a rocky, mobile upbringing, one that gave him an intimate knowledge of small-town, working-class, Middle Americans. Born in Chicago and raised in Nebraska, Chandler and his Irish mother were soon abandoned by his abusive, alcoholic father and they relocated to England. A wealthy family member supported them for a time, while Chandler attended school in London. The young Chandler pursued a career as poet and editor – though this was a relatively brief period in his life, it would set the stage for later years.
He traveled Europe to improve his language proficiency and worked in the civil service when his uncle refused to care for Chandler or his mother. He eventually relocated back to the U.S., bringing his mother with him. He worked a series of random jobs in San Francisco before joining the Canadian army and serving in France during WWI. After the war, Chandler began the single most important relationship of his life. He met Cissy Pascal, a married woman nearly 20 years his senior. She was beautiful and open-minded, having once posed for nude photography in New York, and Chandler was smitten. Though she obtained a divorce soon after their affair began, they were unable to marry for several years until Chandler’s mother died. In the meantime, he became an accountant and later executive at an oil firm, making an enormous salary until he was fired due to his out-of-control alcoholism.
In order to deal with poverty, recovery from his alcoholism, and unemployment, Chandler took the unlikely, unexpected route of writing pulp detective stories. At the somewhat late age of 44, he began writing hardboiled stories for Black Mask. These were popular and successful enough that he combined a few for his first novel, The Big Sleep, which starred his main protagonist, the private detective Philip Marlowe. The hard-drinking, chess-playing, and crime solving P.I. would gradually become Chandler’s claim to fame, as he ceased writing stories and churned out seven complete novels until his death. He was also hired by Hollywood, much to his surprise, to pen crime scripts for a generous salary.
While Chandler’s life seems like an unlikely success story, he suffered a fair amount of tragedy. His alcoholism was a serious obstacle during the second half of his life. Though he was generally able to get control of himself for Cissy’s sake (and to write), he deteriorated after her death in the mid-‘50s. He attempted suicide several times, drank himself nearly to death, and engaged in some fantasy-based, toxic relationships with women. Though few of these were consummated, he dealt with a secretary that nearly leached him of all his money, and he was infatuated with the wife of British writer Stephen Spender.
By his death in 1959, Chandler had become a mainstay of American fiction, was adored by fans, critics, and other writers, and was named the president of the Mystery Writers of America. Alongside Dashiell Hammett, he helped popular mystery and crime fiction, elevating it to a more serious level in American literature. His sensitive, yet tough detective, Philip Marlowe, went on to influence the future of crime fiction, helped create film noir, and permanently shaped the career of iconic actor Humphrey Bogart.
“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” –Raymond Chandler
While many of his early stories became the basis for later novels, this is also where Chandler discovered and perfected a formula. He began studying Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories and settled on the following outline: a protagonist, typically a private detective, though sometimes a cop, gambler, or gangster, discovers a crime. Often something is missing; though this is generally jewelry in his stories, it could also be a missing person or a corpse. While searching for clues to solve the first crime, he stumbles across a second crime (usually a murder). The people he meets during his investigation of the second crime wind up being involved in and often responsible for the first crime.
Chandler’s first story was “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” which was published in Black Mask Magazine in 1933. He would go on to write 22 crime tales, only one of which was published posthumously. For this article I read all the stories in the first Library of America volume of Chandler, which contains all the stories not later cannibalized for novels. While some of his early work is confusing, full of characters and crimes that blend together, and lacks the wit of his later novels, it’s fascinating to watch him develop as a writer. My favorite stories include “Nevada Gas,” where the protagonist is a charming gangster a la a younger version of Bob from Bob le Flambeur, “Spanish Blood,” the bleak “Red Wind,” “The King in Yellow” (not to be confused with the horror tale of the same name by Robert W. Chambers), and “Trouble is My Business.”
Character and scene are always more important than plot to Chandler, and some of his plots are outright confusing, ludicrous, or lacking critical details. But his characters are compelling, he writes dialogue unlike any other American writer, and he develops captivating scenes that effectively capture life in 1940s and ‘50s California. The kernel of his amazing writing began in these stories for Black Mask and come recommended. The Library of America edition of Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels is basically everything you need to get started with his short fiction and to read most of the stories that were not turned into novels.
The Big Sleep
Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) features his most beloved and well-known character, private detective Philip Marlowe. Written in first person, the novel introduces Marlowe, a tough, but lonely and sensitive character who often acts out of a moral impulse rather than a specific desire for money, love, or acclaim. He drinks heavily, plays chess alone in his apartment, and is often betrayed by other characters. He kills only when he must. Adapted from two of Chandler’s stories “Killer in the Rain” (1935) and “The Curtain” (1936), Marlowe is hired by the aging, ill General Sternwood, a rich and proud man with two rebellious, adult daughters. Sternwood hires Marlowe for two reasons: first, to deal with a blackmail issue surrounding his youngest daughter, Carmen, and second, to locate Rusty Regan, the General’s only confidant and his second daughter Vivian’s estranged husband.
The plot becomes more and more twisted as Marlowe learns that Carmen is a drug-addicted nymphomaniac being blackmailed by a pornographer, Arthur Geiger. Geiger turns up dead, with a naked Carmen in his home and a camera missing its film. While he is tracking down the missing pictures, Marlowe learns that Vivian is also being blackmailed by Eddie Mars, a gangster and casino owner who owned the house Geiger was living in. It turns out that Mars’ wife was also having an affair with Regan…
Though the plot is so complicated as to be headache-inducing, The Big Sleep remains one of Chandler’s best and nastiest novels. The lurid subject matter includes illicit sex, a nymphomaniac, a pornography ring, gamblers, murder, blackmail, and one of Chandler’s favorite subjects, the writhing moral decay of the wealthy. It’s hard to believe that this kind of book was written during the period and became so popular over the years. Carmen Sternwood is one of Chandler’s most complex and terrifying characters and must be read to be believed. While I love the film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart, it doesn’t quite do the book justice, though it is the most superior out of the handful of film adaptations. The novel is included in Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels.
Farewell, My Lovely
Chandler’s second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940) again featured Marlowe hired to find a missing person. A recently released con, the enormous Moose Malloy, is desperate to find his girlfriend, Velma, because he is still in love with her after years in prison. This leads Marlowe towards a jewel heist, a rich man’s drunk and licentious wife, an earnest young woman trying to play policeman, and plenty of murder. Though Marlowe took a few shots in The Big Sleep, here he nearly dies several times. In addition to the traditional sap to the back of the head, he is beaten within an inch of his life, shot up with heroin and imprisoned at a phony hospital, and more.
Based on “The Man Who Liked Dogs” (1936), “Try the Girl” (1937), and “Mandarin’s Jade” (1937), this story incorporates the somewhat tired conceit of a jewel heist, albeit with an interesting twist. Though Farewell, My Lovely may lack the punch and nihilism of The Big Sleep, it’s a more mature work with a wider range of characters, more violent gangsters, far more crooked cops, and pits Marlowe against his first femme fatale. And while he showed the corrupt rich in the first novel, here he focuses on the same inherent corruption in blue collar cops, dancers, and low-level gangsters trying to aspire for something more.
This novel was adapted as Murder, My Sweet (1944), the first faithful Chandler adaptation for the screen. Former musical and romantic comedy actor Dick Powell beat Bogart to the punch and is memorable as an excellent, if somewhat comic Marlowe. As with The Big Sleep, both films send Marlowe off into the sunset with a love interest, something Chandler was always reluctant to do in the novels, giving his worker a bleaker edge. This novel is included in Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels.
The High Window
Chandler’s third novel, published in 1942, yet again examines social corruption and juxtaposes innocent with murderous women. Based on “Bay City Blues” (1938) and “Lady in the Lake” (1939), Marlowe is hired by a wealthy, viperous widow, Mrs. Murdock, to find a missing coin – the incredibly rare and valuable Brasher Doubloon – and to find her missing daughter-in-law, a wayward nightclub singer. Though it first seems that the daughter-in-law stole the coin, soon a blackmailer is murdered and Marlowe finds a curious picture of a man falling out a window, which exposes another murder that is several years old.
Chandler apparently thought this novel was his worst. I found parts of it very entertaining, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Big Sleep or some of his other works. Part of the problem is that it rehashes some of his typical themes: a missing valuable object and missing person, a murder connected somewhat obviously to another, seemingly unrelated murder, the inherent corruption of the rich, etc. It also has some of his least complex or compelling female characters, including the controlling, manipulative widow, innocent young thing, world weary nightclub singer, and two-timing gold-digger. Marlowe himself is a bit unusual here, acting as a sort of white knight that rescues a psychologically damaged young woman from a toxic situation.
While Chandler fans will want to check out The High Window, it isn’t an ideal place to start for beginners. This novel is included in Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels. There is also a film adapted, The Brasher Doubloon, from underrated film noir and horror director John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square), starring George Montgomery (Battle of the Bulge) as Marlowe.
Lady in the Lake
Definitely more satisfying than The High Window, Lady in the Lake (1943) is a return to form and a return to the almost absurd plot complexity of The Big Sleep. Based on “Bay City Blues,” “Lady in the Lake,” and “No Crime in the Mountains” (1941), Chandler is hired to find a department store manager’s rich wife, who sent a postcard saying she was running off with another man, but seems to be missing. Marlowe retraces her footsteps, which leads him to the family’s lake house in the middle of the country. Here he comes across a woman’s body in the lake and yet another missing wife. Though the local sheriff tries to be helpful, Marlowe is soon stuck in the web of a femme fatale and yet more corrupt cops.
Lady in the Lake is one of Chandler’s better novels and is the first time Marlowe would leave the big city for a jaunt in the country. The small town sheriff is one of Chandler’s most lovable side characters and provides a nice foil for the frequent depictions of stupid, corrupt, and violent police officers that occurred in the first few books. Though the female characters throughout the novel are a mixed bag and none of them are thoroughly fleshed out, there are some nice twists and turns that show promiscuous, alcoholic women in a sympathetic, if somewhat positive light. Marlowe is probably at his least involved here and the film noir concept of fate takes a strong hand in the film’s plot. This novel is included in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels & Other Writings.
The Little Sister
Publish in 1949, The Little Sister was based on Chandler’s story “The Bay City Blues.” An innocent-looking young woman comes to Marlowe’s office pleading that he locate her lost brother, who recently moved to the big city from the middle of nowhere and may be in trouble. Predictably, the bodies begin to pile up and Marlowe stumbles across a scheme where blackmailers are trying to milk an up-and-coming actress, one who is unfortunately dating a notorious gangster. The innocent young woman and her brother may not be all that they seem and Marlowe again risks life and limb to keep a young woman safe.
The Little Sister definitely borrows some elements from Farewell, My Lovely and Lady in the Lake, and there won’t be a whole lot of surprises about the resolution of the mystery if you’ve read either of those first. Despite that, it’s still an entertaining story with three very interesting female characters – a guarded and desperate actress, her violent, nymphomaniac friend, and the original young woman who first hires Marlowe, who is far more than she seems. I doubt this will be anyone’s favorite Chandler novel, but it still has its high points and was largely inspired by Chandler’s time as a screenwriter working in Hollywood. The change of scenery is refreshing and Chandler’s take on the studio scene is both hilarious and deeply critical. This novel is included in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels & Other Writings. It wasn’t adapted to film until 1969, as Marlowe.
The Long Goodbye
My favorite Chandler novel is undoubtedly this one, published in 1953 and not based on any pre-existing stories. This was Chandler’s favorite of his own works and it has a more somber, defeated tone, thanks to the fact that he wrote it while his beloved wife was dying. It also has more autobiographical elements than any of his earlier novels. Marlowe befriends a young, but white-haired alcoholic, ex-soldier Terry Lennox. They meet off and on for a few months, until Terry shows up at Marlowe’s apartment and begs to be driven to Tijuana. Afterwards, Marlowe learns that Terry’s rich, promiscuous wife was found dead with her head bashed in. Though Marlowe is originally thrown in jail, he is set free with the news of Terry’s apparent suicide in Mexico. Meanwhile, one of the Lennox’s acquaintances, Eileen Wade, hires Marlowe to find her missing husband, an alcoholic writer on a bender. The situation is bleaker than Marlowe first suspects and soon it seems that he has another suicide on his hands. Seeing, however, is not quite believing, and Marlowe suspects something more sinister is afoot.
Available in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels & Other Writings, The Long Goodbye comes with the highest possible recommendation. Marlowe is aged, mature, weary of life, and defeated. The book provides an interesting look into the life of an alcoholic writer with a suffering wife, much like Chandler himself. This novel has a bitter, grieving tone and Chandler didn’t write anything else quite like it.
Chandler wrote a courtroom drama for Universal, which was never produced. He took the material and turned it into Playback (1958), perhaps his least known novel and his very last. Published just a year before his death, this concerns Marlowe on his final adventure. He is hired by an anonymous client to follow a woman through southern California. The woman, Betty Mayfield, becomes the target of a blackmailer, who winds up dead in her hotel room. She goes to Marlowe for helping, sucking him into a world of gangsters, hired killers, and an old man with a sinister grudge. More meandering than Chandler’s other films, he seems reluctant to put Marlowe in the same rough position as some of the earlier novels. He even gives him a potentially happy ending, where he reunites with Linda Loring, a character he had an affair with at the end of The Long Goodbye. Probably only of interest to Chandler completists, this novel is available in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels & Other Writings.
Though Chandler didn’t finish another novel, he wrote a few chapters of Poodle Springs, a work posthumously completed by mystery writer Robert B. Parker. I don’t consider this actual Chandler, but I thought it was worth a mention.
Something else you can find in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels & Other Writings is Chandler’s excellent, Academy Award-nominated script for Double Indemnity (1944), which he co-wrote with director Billy Wilder. Though based on the novel by James M. Cain, the script benefits from Chandler’s razor sharp dialogue and thick sexual innuendo, which fuels the relationship between Walter and Phyllis, an insurance agent who helps a married woman kill her rich, older husband for the money. Chandler also scripted The Blue Dahlia (1946), the tale of ex-soldiers, murder, and madness. His original ending (where a soldier is the murderer) was rejected due to censorship issues and he insisted that he would only finish it while on a bender.
Though Chandler was disappointed in the final version, it garnered him his second Academy Award nomination. He also worked with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train (1951), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, though the writer and director did not have a positive working relationship. Though Chandler remains credited as lead screenwriter, Hitchcock got someone else to finish up the project.
He also wrote a number of essays about penning detective fiction or working in Hollywood, including the most famous, "The Simple Art of Murder" in 1944. Most of his essays were written for The Atlantic Monthly and include "Writers in Hollywood," "Critical Notes," "Oscar Night in Hollywood," "Ten Per Cent of Your Life," and "A Couple of Writers.” These can be found in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels & Other Writings.
For yet more about Chandler, there are plenty of resources. I recently read and recommend Tom Hiney’s biography, Raymond Chandler, though there is also Frank MacShane’s The Life of Raymond Chandler, Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, and Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane’s The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction. While I recommend the Library of America editions, explore Amazon’s Chandler Page for alternate versions of his books.
However you read his books, just read them.
I will leave you with one of my favorite lines, which is from Farewell, My Lovely: “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.”