The Big Sleep: Biography

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Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 23, 1888. His father, an American, abandoned the family early in Chandler’s life, and his mother, an Anglo-Irish woman, obtained a divorce and moved with her son to England in 1895. Funded by an uncle, Chandler attended London’s Dulwich College, a prestigious prep school where he did well academically and in fact won a competitive, stable job in the British bureaucracy. Despite his uncle’s urging, however, Chandler turned his back on the business world and tried to make a living as a writer of poems and book reviews in London. Failing as a writer, Chandler moved to California in 1912 and took a job in accounting. He met and fell in love with a married woman, Cissy Pascal, eighteen years older than he, but World War I then drew him into the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Chandler served with distinction in France till he was wounded. After he recovered, he planned to serve with Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, but the war ended, and he returned to California.


In Los Angeles, Chandler tried his hand at journalism but soon took a job with Dabney Oil Syndicate. Although Chandler claimed to dislike business, he was good at dealing with the complexities of the industry and able to work with a variety of people, some of whom—as does happen in boom industries—were not entirely legitimate. During this time, Cissy divorced, and Chandler set her up in an apartment, but they did not marry until after Chandler’s mother’s death in 1924.


Chandler rose to vice president in the company, but struggles with alcohol abuse, disagreements with management, and the financial blow of the Depression combined to cost him his job in 1932. To augment his dwindling savings, he turned back to writing, publishing his first short story in a popular pulp magazine, Black Mask, in 1933. Chandler knew that short stories alone could not support him and Cissy, so he began a systematic study of novels by Dashiell Hammett (creator of iconic characters Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles), Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of crime-solving lawyer Perry Mason), and other writers of detective and mystery stories. He also enrolled in a correspondence writing course to hone his skills. Chandler’s goal was to overlay the rough, realistic writing in detective fiction with a literary style; he became famous for his handling of figurative and descriptive language. With financial help from friends, Chandler wrote full-time and, working over just three months, he adapted two short stories into his first novel, The Big Sleep, published by Knopf in 1939. The novel introduced the public to Philip Marlowe, the now iconic detective who would star in six more novels (Farewell, My Lovely; The High Window; The Lady in the Lake; The Little Sister; The Long Goodbye; and Playback). Of these, all but the final novel have been adapted for film and stage. Chandler also published stories, reviews, and other short works.


Chandler’s financial and professional success as a writer rested also on his screenplay work. Paramount paid him handsomely to adapt James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and he received an Academy Award nomination for the work. Exhausted by the pace of production, and needing to devote more time to Cissy, who, in her seventies, was ill with a lung disease, Chandler cut back on work. Now in his mid-fifties, still struggling with alcohol-related health issues, he worked on novels and consulted on scripts in progress, including on the adaptation of The Big Sleep, which debuted in 1946. Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Philip Marlowe became iconic, yet several actors, including Dick Powell, played the detective, and Chandler himself expressed a desire to see Cary Grant in the role.


By 1945 Chandler was firmly established as a respected, sought-after writer and was making very good money. He wrote the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, earning another Academy Award nomination, under pressures and deadlines so extreme that they nearly ruined his health. Then, save for occasionally consulting, he retired to his home in La Jolla to recover and care for Sissy. Tempted out of retirement briefly by Paramount, he agreed to work with Alfred Hitchcock on the script for Strangers on a Train for the then unheard of salary of $2,500 a week. (He and Hitchcock did not get along—famously.)


After Cissy’s death in December 1954, Chandler grieved hard, drinking, attempting suicide, and then traveling to eclipse his sorrow. In England, he was feted as a literary lion and met other such figures, including Ian Fleming. Returning to California, he finished Playback, his final Marlowe novel, while increasingly ill. Chandler died of pneumonia in La Jolla on March 26, 1959.


Chandler’s style is celebrated and sometimes imitated. He described it, in a 1947 letter to Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks, as “a sort of broken-down patois” that often combined “the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular.” In the letter, he famously set straight a copyeditor who had “fixed” his split infinitives: “when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split . . .”


Chandler’s novels are generally classed as noir fiction—though critics argue endlessly about exactly what characterizes noir novels and films, and some find Marlowe too positive a protagonist to be truly noir. Noir, French for “dark” or “black,” is a type of fiction characterized by a nihilistic and usually urban social environment, mostly static characters whose dark desires and selfish behaviors bring them and those around them pain and sometimes death, and an antihero protagonist whose life often becomes entangled with the criminal enterprises he investigates. Women in noir fiction tend to belong to one of two types: the beautiful seductress (sometimes even a femme fatale) and the beautiful victim. In both cases, sex—in particular deviant sex—often drives the plot, which made adapting noir fiction into noir film challenging while the Hays Code was in effect (from 1934 to 1968). The tone of noir fiction is cynical; characters are not redeemed, endings are not happy, and the good are not rewarded, nor are the wicked necessarily punished.


Critics debate whether Marlowe is truly a noir protagonist because, despite his disdain for legal procedure and his willingness to shield some crime from prosecution, his heart is good. He is an urban knight and a protector of victims—especially female victims—and thus perhaps a bit too traditionally good to be a noir character. “Marlowe is a more honorable man than you or I,” Chandler wrote in a letter to director John Houseman. “I don’t mean Bogart playing Marlowe and I don’t mean because I created him.” The honorable detective is now enshrined in literary and film history—whether as a noir character or not, readers must decide.

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