This Day In Writing History
On July 23rd, 1888, the famous mystery writer Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois. When he was seven years old, Chandler's Irish mother moved the family to England after they were abandoned by his father, a civil engineer and drunkard who worked for an American railway company.
In England, Chandler's uncle, an affluent lawyer, supported the family. Chandler received his education first at a local school in Upper Norwood, then at Dulwich College, London - the same public college where P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester learned to write. After graduation, instead of attending university, Chandler traveled through Europe, spending time in Paris and Munich.
Raymond Chandler became a naturalized British citizen so he could take a civil examination, where he would receive the third highest grade ever earned. Chandler then took an Admiralty job which lasted just over a year. He began his writing career as a poet, and published his first poem during this time. Chandler came to dislike the civil service. Despite his family's objections, he quit and became a reporter for the Daily Express and the Bristol Western Gazette newspapers. He was unsuccessful as a journalist, but did publish some reviews and continued writing poetry.
With a loan from his uncle, Chandler returned to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles, where he earned a meager living doing menial jobs, including stringing tennis rackets and picking fruit. Finally, he took a correspondence course in bookkeeping, which he completed ahead of schedule. It enabled him to find decent, steady employment. When the U.S. entered World War 1 in 1917, Chandler enlisted in the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force). In France, he fought in the trenches with the Gordon Highlanders, an infantry regiment in the British Army. By the end of the war, he was undergoing training to be a pilot for the RAF.
After the armistice that ended the war was signed, Chandler returned to Los Angeles. His mother moved in with him. He soon fell in love with Cissy Pascal, a married woman 18 years his senior. Cissy ended her marriage in an amicable divorce, but Chandler's mother didn't approve of their relationship and would not allow them to marry. He had to support both women financially for the next four years. Chandler's mother died in September 1923. Five months later, in February 1924, he married Cissy.
By 1932, Raymond Chandler had become a highly paid vice president for the Dabney Oil syndicate. It would only last a year, as Chandler's battles with alcoholism and depression took their toll and resulted in his firing. But he got his life back together and decided to try making a living as a writer. He taught himself how to write pulp fiction, and in 1933, his first short story, Blackmailers Don't Shoot, was published in Black Mask magazine. He continued write and publish stories regularly in pulp fiction magazines for several years.
In 1939, Raymond Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, was published. It became a huge success, and introduced the world to Chandler's most famous recurring character - a hard-boiled detective by the name of Philip Marlowe. While Marlowe was a tough guy, he was quite different than most hard-boiled detectives. He was intelligent (college educated) and complex, tough as nails yet sentimental at times, and somewhat fluent in Spanish. He had few friends and a passion for both classical music and the game of chess. If he suspected that a prospective client's job was unethical, he would refuse to take the case. Chandler's writing style was hard-boiled and fast moving, with clever and lyrical metaphors: "The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips." This distinctive style would be referred to as "Chandleresque."
In The Big Sleep, (the title is a euphemism for death) Philip Marlowe is hired by elderly, wheelchair-bound millionaire General Sternwood. The case seems simple and straightforward: Marlowe must track down a blackmailer who claims that he's owed gambling debts accrued by Sternwood's unstable daughter, Carmen. Marlowe soon realizes that nothing about the case is as it seems; people surrounding Carmen and the blackmailer start turning up dead, and Marlowe becomes ensnared in a grim, sordid web of murder, madness, and the illegal stag film business.
Chandler's debut novel was a huge success. In 1946, it would be adapted as a feature film starring Humphrey Bogart. Though the novel had to be sanitized considerably for the screen as per Production Code requirements, the movie version of The Big Sleep is still considered an all-time classic film, and rightfully so. Before the movie was made, Chandler's success as a novelist earned him a job as a Hollywood screenwriter. In 1944, he and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay for the suspense film classic Double Indemnity - an adaptation of James M. Cain's novel. In 1946, he wrote an original screenplay for a noir thriller called The Blue Dahlia, which starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. In 1951, Chandler co-wrote the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock classic Strangers On A Train - an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel whose story Chandler found implausible.
Raymond Chandler continued to write more classic Philip Marlowe novels, including Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Lady In The Lake (1943) and The Long Goodbye (1954), which won him an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1955. After he completed The Long Goodbye, Chandler's wife Cissy died following a long illness. Her death shattered him, and he plunged into a new battle with his old demons, drink and depression. He attempted suicide in 1955. After recovering in England, Chandler returned to California. He died three years later at the age of 70 from heart and kidney failure.
Quote Of The Day
"I have a sense of exile from thought, a nostalgia of the quiet room and balanced mind. I am a writer, and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn't have to be great writing, it doesn't even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine."
Today's video features a short lecture on Raymond Chandler by Judith Freeman, from the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. Enjoy!