Burning Witches

Michael Rogin

  • Raymond Chandler: A Biography by Tom Hiney
    Chatto, 310 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6310 0
  • Raymond Chandler Speaking edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker
    California, 288 pp, £10.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 520 20835 8

In 1955, the Daily Express conducted a poll to discover the most popular celebrities according to highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow tastes. Raymond Chandler and Marilyn Monroe were, as Chandler put it. ‘the only ones that made all three brows’. Chandler shattered cultural barriers with Philip Marlowe, private investigator, immortalised on the screen by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, mortalised by Dick Powell and Robert Montgomery during Chandler’s lifetime, and afterwards by Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum and James Garner. He was the hero of the most listened to radio detective serial in history, and, by the time Chandler died in 1959, had sold over five million books.

The private eye was the wilderness hero moved to the urban frontier, alone and unattached, living honestly outside the law, doomed upholder of vanishing virtues; ‘hard, isolate, stoic and a killer’ in D.H. Lawrence’s description of the original of the breed, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking. ‘In a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated’ was how Chandler himself imagined Marlowe’s future. The frontiersman and the private eye find their archetypal expression in the five Leather-stocking and seven Marlowe novels, the first a series written by an often-expatriate American living in England and France and dreaming of the frontier, the second by a self-described ‘man without a country’, an American brought up in England and Ireland who, writing in Los Angeles, longed for the country from which he had exiled himself.

We are undergoing a Chandler revival. The Library of America has published his complete works in two volumes; a 1962 edition of selected Chandler letters, essays, and fiction, Raymond Chandler Speaking, has been re-issued. We now have a restored print of The Big Sleep, half an hour longer than the original; and, most recently, Tom Hiney’s Raymond Chandler, billed as the first ‘authorised’ biography in twenty years. Chandler would be amused by his power to authorise a biography from beyond the grave, but probably not so amused by the promise of ‘new material’ about the private life of the author of the private eye. ‘Do you suppose,’ Chandler once admonished an aspiring author, ‘I became one of the most successful mystery writers of any age by thinking about me?’

Chandler invented a hero without a history: Marlowe, as he describes himself in The Long Goodbye, had ‘both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime ... nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.’ But in immortalising a figure in whom he pretends no one will be interested, Chandler only attracted curiosity about himself. Hiney, who had access to papers held by the Chandler estate, has written a lively, serviceable biography, but Chandler’s personal torments were made public in Frank McShane’s posthumously ‘authorised’ biography of 1975, and Hiney offers fundamentally the same account.

The only child of an American father and an Anglo-Irish mother, Raymond Chandler was raised in England after his father abandoned the family. He attended Dulwich College, worked briefly in London, ended up in Los Angeles on the eve of World War One, was wounded in trench warfare serving in the Canadian Army, and returned to manage several oil company independents during the Los Angeles oil boom of the Twenties. But Chandler’s version of the immigrant success story was coloured by his three deepest entanglements: with his mother and wife, with the bottle and with writing.

When he returned from the war, he fell in love with the stepmother of the friend with whom he had gone off to enlist. Although he may never have known her real age, the already twice married Cissy Pascal was, at 49, 18 years older than Chandler and barely younger than his mother, another fading beauty who never revealed her birth date. Herself a member of the Pascal household, Florence Chandler opposed the marriage. For four years Chandler lived with his mother, supporting the two women in two separate houses; he married Cissy two weeks after Florence Chandler’s death. Although briefly unfaithful during two periods of heavy drinking, Chandler adored his wife. ‘For 30 years, ten months, and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at.’

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