Sam Leith

Down the mean streets

It was remarkable that Raymond Chandler produced any crime fiction at all, given his crippling, depressive alcoholism and his disregard for plot or mystery, suggests Sam Leith

Down the mean streets
Text settings

A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, A Life

Tom Williams

Aurum Press, pp. 400, £

One of the fun facts you occasionally hear people brandish about Raymond Chandler is that he was at Dulwich College with  P. G. Wodehouse. It’s a slight fiction —Wodehouse was actually there seven years earlier, so we can’t picture Chandler giving him a bog-wash — but one that sticks because of the contrast: good egg and hard-boiled egg. How could this suburban public school produce, at once, the laureates of Edwardian toffery and LA private-dickery?

Reading Tom Williams’s absorbing new biography of Chandler, though, what struck me was not how different but how weirdly similar Wodehouse and Chandler are as writers. Both have a keen eye for class markers, both create profoundly homo- social if not homosexual worlds, and both have a very curious relationship with sex: it’s absent in Wodehouse and it’s treated with fear and suspicion in Chandler (Marlowe, seeing the imprint of a would-be-seductress’s body on his bed, tears the sheets to shreds in a rage).

Wodehouse agonised over his plots, but managed to produce some.  Chandler couldn’t do plots to save his life, but didn’t agonise much. In both, though, the paramount glories are at the level of sentences and paragraphs. Chandler’s ear was exquisite, his tone of voice unfaltering. And though he’s not thought of as a comic novelist he was, line by line, very funny indeed. ‘About the only part of a Californian house you can’t put your foot through is the front door.’ ‘Not all of the story came out, but enough so that the City Hall boys in the $200 suits had their left elbows in front of their faces for some time.’ ‘From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.’

As a technician of the novel, let’s say Chandler was eccentric rather than incompetent. A favourite story has it that during the filming of The Big Sleep Howard Hawks cabled Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur, and he didn’t know. Here was a crime writer more or less completely  uninterested in whodunit, let alone in putting together a plot. His early novels were what in the secondhand car racket they call  ‘cut-and-shuts’: a couple of previous short stories welded together and resprayed.

Believing that ‘a good story cannot be devised, it has to be distilled’, Chandler started writing, and went where his pen took him, relying on the process of revision to make sense of things. ‘As usual, Ray had sat down and written without fully understanding the plot and now had to remove the fat from the text to find the story,’  Williams writes of what became The Long Goodbye.

Chandler composed by assembling vivid scenes — typing bursts of 125-150 words on half-sheets of letter paper, turned sideways in the typewriter — and then putting them together. No technician of plot, he was a masterly technician of the sentence. He extended the possibilities of pulp fiction far beyond the Black Mask guns-’n’-dames formula; his stated ambition to write a novel with ‘a murder in it but [which] is not a mystery’ was surely the equivalent of Chekhov’s dream of doing away with the pistol-shot in the last act. He was a considerable theorist of his craft, too, with a gift for apothegms. Of locked-room mysteries, he wrote, he ‘became preoccupied with the thought that a miracle is always a trap’.

Underpinning the noirish Americana is a traditional, even tweedily English, sensibility. Thanks to Dulwich College, it’s plausibly suggested, Chandler approached the gangster patois of LA in the same spirit as you might the acquisition of Greek or Latin: ‘It would seem that a classical education might be a rather poor basis for writing novels in a hardboiled vernacular. I happen to think otherwise.’

Here, quite overtly, was the gumshoe as parfit gentil knight. An early Chandler hero was called Mallory, and Philip Marlowe’s name suggests Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe. (Chandler’s disciple, the late Robert B. Parker, called his own detective Spenser and had him quote Tennyson’s Sir Galahad: ‘My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.’)

 It needed no work of imagination, incidentally, to turn the Los Angeles in which Chandler spent his young manhood into the moral cesspit through which his paladin waded. The modern city originated in a hair-raising swindle — an aqueduct built with public money for private enrichment — and was controlled by the System, a syndicate of gang bosses who ran both the police and local government.

What a troubled life that paladin — that fantastical and slightly childish self-projection — arose from. Chandler was a man in need of a friend — and in his biographer he finds one. Williams calls his subject ‘Ray’, which I’m stuffy enough not to like (I felt the same about the biographer who called Robert Lowell ‘Cal’), but it’s a token of the welcome spirit of affection in which he writes.

Here’s a straightforward, largely well paced and sympathetic account of the life, marred by a slight weakness for banalities of the ‘As he waved goodbye to England, he could not have known that in five years he would be back’ type. Of Chandler, drunk, calling his wife, threatening suicide, Williams tells us: ‘It must have been awful for her.’ Really?

There’s so much here that’s interesting and poignant, though, you can forgive  the gaucheness. The son of a wife-beating, alcoholic father, Chandler looked for women to idealise and protect: first his own mother, then his much older wife, Cissy — whom in drink he frequently wronged but whom he loved to distraction. When she died, he wrote to a friend that ‘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. That is all there is to say.’

His male relationships were affectionate but prickly — he was quick to cut off those he thought had behaved dishonourably, and fostered intimate correspondences with people he’d never, or only briefly, met in person. There was a slight wonkiness in his real-life emotional intelligence. When he fell out with Hitchcock (he called him a ‘fat bastard’), Chandler never quite cottoned to the fact that they were no longer friends — he didn’t understand how angry Hitchcock was.

He was uneasy with Hollywood in general, at one point publishing a denunciation of the way writers were treated. (‘Chandler’s books are not good enough, nor his pictures bad enough, to justify that article,’ someone remarked drily at the time.)  Hollywood had reason to be uneasy with him in return. He claimed to be able to type perfectly when plastered, and, when he ran into the mud writing the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, managed to convince not only himself but his producers and his wife that the way to get it finished was to write it drunk. And it worked. It took eight days, the morning after the first of which his producer visited the house and ‘found Ray passed out in the living room with a small stack of neatly typed pages sitting next to him, ready to be taken to the studio’.

The first three-quarters of this book is the biography of a writer; the last quarter, more or less, the biography of an alcoholic. His drunkenness — which came and went over the years — was wretched. After Cissy’s death he fell completely to pieces and, despite the best efforts of a group of kind friends (headed by Natasha Spender, whose patience with him was astonishing) stayed in pieces. Writing from London in 1955, he reported:

I start off with a drink of white wine and end up drinking two bottles of Scotch a day. Then I stop eating. After four or five days of that I am ill. I have to quit and the withdrawal symptoms are simply awful. I shake so that I can’t hold a glass of water. I can’t stand up or walk without help. One day I vomited 18 times. I wasn’t sick at all, but something kept dropping down at the back of my throat from inflamed sinuses and every time that happened I gagged my life out. For three days I could drink nothing but sips of ice water.

The end of his story is sad beyond words: vaingloriousness, self-absorption, crude sexual braggadocio, lunging and lurching romantic reachings-out, and underneath it a welling loneliness. He was deathbound. It was, you could say, a long goodbye.