When director Howard Hawkes cabled Raymond Chandler during the film adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946) to ask who murdered the chauffeur, the author was forced to wire back, “No idea.” Chandler was notoriously indifferent to plot, yet he won an ardent following during his lifetime (1888-1959), and continues to be revered today. His attraction lies rather in his superb, cinematic scenes and their startling, witty dialogue. Above all, there is his private dick, Philip Marlowe, the quixotic wanderer of Los Angeles and its mean streets, one of the most influential characters in the literary history of crime. Drawing on a wealth of unpublished, never-before-unearthed accounts, British journalist Tom Hiney provides a sympathetic study of a troubled life, deftly detailing how Chandler made Marlowe out of himself, from his passionate hatred of sham, his lonely restlessness (more than 100 addresses in his adult life) and his frequent binge drinking.
Chicago-born Chandler spent most of his adult life, aside from a First World War stint in the Canadian army, in or around Los Angeles—a city he both loved and hated, sometimes simultaneously. When drink and the Depression reduced the fortyish oil executive to penury in the 1930s, Chandler decided to write. In a constant state of disgust with what he saw as a corrupt and sex-obsessed world—sex, Marlowe sourly comments in The Little Sister, is “great stuff, like chocolate sundaes, but there comes a time when you would rather cut your throat”—Chandler was drawn to the new, so-called hardboiled mystery fiction. He thought it the only appropriate literature for such a tawdry era. In a 1949 letter, he wrote that “modern outspokenness has utterly destroyed the romantic dream on which love feeds . . . there is nothing left to write about but death, and the detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.”
Except that the endings of the seven Marlowe novels were not very happy at all, given Marlowe’s sour take on the world. The hard-bitten detective was all that Chandler “was, wished he was and feared he might be,” in Hiney’s words. He was also the core of a body of work that wrenched the detective story from bloodless logic puzzle to brooding depiction of social dislocation. Which is why, in these times of even greater alienation, Marlowe continues to appeal.
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