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The Life of Raymond Chandler

by Tom Williams

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61374-840-4
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

The peripatetic, disordered life of the creator of private eye Philip Marlowe.

First-time author Williams structures his text fairly conventionally. It begins in 1913, when 25-year-old Chandler arrived in Los Angeles, where he would later set loose Marlowe to roam as a knight errant; then it retreats to Chandler’s birth in Chicago and proceeds steadily forward from there to his death from pneumonia and alcohol-related issues in 1959. Williams spent six years doing in-depth research; among the valuable material on Chandler's early history is a revealing account of his years in Ireland and England with his mother. This realistic, at times unflattering portrait shows the conflicted Chandler often drinking too much and sometimes seeking sex outside his marriage (wife Cissy was 18 years his senior). Williams, to his credit, neither defends nor excuses Chandler for these failings, nor for the uncomfortable words he wrote about gays, women and African-Americans. Using Chandler’s correspondence and papers, the biographer describes his generally successful career in Hollywood (including a dust-up with Hitchcock) and takes us through the creation and reception of his major stories and novels, from The Big Sleep in 1939 to The Long Goodbye in 1953. He disintegrated when Cissy died in 1954, drinking ever more heavily and pursuing women ever more recklessly. His behavior, Williams suggests, stemmed from the fear that he would never break free from Marlowe and become the writer he’d hoped to be. There are some minor omissions: A brief afterword lists the films made from Chandler's works (Williams thinks Robert Altman’s take on The Long Goodbye will endure) but does not mention that Robert B. Parker completed Chandler’s unfinished Poodle Springs (1989) and wrote yet another Marlowe novel (Perchance to Dream, 1991), nor does it note Chandler's two volumes in the Library of America series. Nonetheless, this is a thorough assessment of a talented, troubled writer whose obsessions fed his work and confounded his life.

A cleareyed, compassionate biography.