In 1988, Time magazine pronounced Raymond Chandler the most imitated writer of the century, with the possible exception of Hemingway. Hollywood must take some of the blame. As well as boosting sales of trilbies and trenchcoats, after The Big Sleep Humphrey Bogart encouraged Los Angeles sleuths to say to their wives: "Mmm, you smell the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight".
The sassy, atmospheric Marlowe mysteries were admired by T S Eliot, W H Auden and Edmund Wilson. When Chandler died from bronchitis in 1959, aged 70, he was king of the higher-brow pulps. Chandler's influence survives today in the work of Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. He borrowed from Dashiell Hammett's mobster yarns, and took from the Pinkerton Agency stories in the Black Mask magazine, then made something wonderful all of his own. Chandler's novels are full of big-city loneliness, grim, laconic humour and a sad-eyed poetry.
When the first Chandler biography came out in 1976, Frank MacShane treated his subject not simply as a wise-cracking crime-writer, but as a novelist. Nor did he flinch from exposing the seriousness of Chandler's alcoholism, an affliction passed on by his no-good Quaker father who was a Chicago railway engineer. However, Tom Hiney is able to make good use in this new biography of the Chandler files at the Bodleian and at Dulwich College, which contain personal documents and letters not seen by MacShane. Chandler was sent to the south London public school at the age of 12 in 1900, having left his native Chicago with his recently divorced mother. Dulwich gave
Chandler a grounding in Classical literature and lent an ironic, peculiarly English sensibility to novels like The Long Goodbye. The school also produced the writers P G Wodehouse and C S Forester (as well as Bob Monkhouse and Peter Lilley). Chandler named his famous gumshoe after Marlowe House at Dulwich College.
Chandler rarely drew a sober breath after the death of his wife, Cissy Pascal, in 1954. Virtually nothing is known of this enigmatic woman, except that her demise was Chandler's downfall. He tried to kill himself in a drunken stupor but used dud ammunition and the revolver misfired.
Booze had already affected a number of Chandler's jobs since leaving school. In San Francisco he was a clerk for Spaldings, the sports outfitters ("stringing lawn tennis racquets and not making much money", remarked a school friend); then he was employed by a Los Angeles ice cream manufacturer. For much of this time Chandler was hog-whimpering drunk, and suffered alcoholic blackouts. Eventually he was sacked from a Los Angeles oil company for drinking on the job. Putting a brave face on it, Chandler confessed: "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."
Stony broke, Chandler settled to writing low-grade , sub-Hammett pulp. His tough guys threw a lot of profanity around, but a different breed of private eye emerged with Philip Marlowe. Unmarried, lonely and a bit melancholy, he was not brutal like Hammett's sleuths. Marlowe had an idealist's sense of justice and even - God help the genre! - a sensitive streak.
Chandler wrote only seven Marlowe novels, but he made his name and fortune from them. However, some of his best work was as a scriptwriter: The Blue Dahlia, Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train (after the Patricia Highsmith novel) are Hollywood classics.
Hiney successfully defends Chandler against the charge of racism: it would have been unrealistic of Chandler not to put racist banter into the mouths of his lowlifes. All the same, Chandler's was no processed mind. He had no time for the Waspishness of the LA middle-class, and he was genuinely outraged by the execution in 1955 of Ruth Ellis. "This thing haunts me and, so far as I may say it, disgusts me as something obscene," he wrote to the London Evening Standard. Chandler had a low opinion of the FBI and publicly snubbed J Edgar Hoover, the bureau's witch-hunting director.
Tom Hiney gives a readable, well-written account of Chandler's life, but it could have been meatier. He does not seem to have done much leg- work. Many who knew Chandler are surely still alive, so why not talk to them?