A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, a Life
By Tom Williams
Aurum Press Ltd,
400 pages, £20
There never was a private detective like Philip Marlowe. As his creator Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) once wrote: “The real-life private eye is a sleazy little drudge ... He has about as much moral stature as a stop-and-go sign.” The incorruptible Marlowe is no less of a wish-fulfilment fantasy figure than Mr Darcy or Christian Grey, although where their attraction lies in being filthy-rich, Marlowe appeals because he is dirt-poor.
Here he is in “The Long Goodbye” (1953), explaining his creed and making Mother Teresa seem grabby by comparison: “I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter. You don’t make a dime that way ... I’ve got a five-thousand-dollar bill in my safe but I’ll never spend a nickel of it. Because there was something wrong with the way I got it. I played with it a little at first and I still get it out once in a while and look at it.” It is a thrilling passage because it takes a character barely more plausible than Batman and breathes life into him, makes the fantasy concrete.
Chandler strove to bring a rare note of realism to the bloodless, genteel genre of detective fiction with his unsanitised depictions of murder and corruption, but he insisted that no book could attain the level of art unless it had a “quality of redemption”, represented in his own work by his idealised hero: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid ... “
One of the most fascinating aspects of Tom Williams’s new biography is that it shows how frequently throughout his life Chandler cast himself as the Marlowe-esque hero-knight. It is as if he were trying to bring this “quality of redemption” to his own life. Just as Marlowe avoids romantic entanglements, Chandler seems to have had no relationships, casual or serious, before he met his future wife in his thirties, out of a courtly desire to make sure he caused no hurt. His father was violently abusive to his mother, and the effect was “to wire into Ray’s brain a desire to protect women”, Williams suggests.
His self-image as a lonely hero was clearly so important to him he was prepared to bend the facts, and Williams is a good enough gumshoe to have uncovered evidence that contradicts assertions swallowed by previous biographers. For example, although he certainly fought bravely in the trenches in France during the First World War, Williams has found documentary evidence disproving his claim that he was concussed in a German shell attack that left all his friends dead.
Philip Larkin suggested in his poem “A Study of Reading Habits” that the problem with genre fiction is that as we get older we find ourselves identifying less with the noble hero than with “the dude who lets the girl down before the hero arrives”. That sense of disillusionment must have been particularly intense for somebody with a self-image as romantic as Chandler’s, which may be why he became an alcoholic when he started cheating on his wife.
His drinking lost him his job as an oil-company executive at the age of 44, although this may have saved him, for a time at least: He turned to writing, realising his quixotic impulses in novels.
His final years are horrible to read about as, with his wife Sissy dead and his best work behind him, he became a grotesque parody of his former chivalrous self, promising financial security to young women who tried to help him and then altering his will if he found someone else to fall briefly in love with.
Williams does not flinch from describing his subject’s faults but he lets his enthusiasm for the books shine through. He has unearthed little new material and his prose is pedestrian, but he knows the value of letting Chandler speak for himself. The nuggets from Chandler’s letters are wonderful: He stands with Waugh, Larkin and Amis as one of the great epistolary curmudgeons, transmuting grumpiness into art. He did cause a lot of hurt but his writings are his redemption.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2012