Looking for a message in the bottle

Raymond Chandler: a biography by Tom Hiney, Chatto, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Lean back in your seat on the 24 bus, ask your fellow passengers to name three writers of detective fiction, and chances are Raymond Chandler will be among them. Talk shop with a bunch of crime writers and the same name comes up as someone to admire and enjoy, even steal from now and then. For a man who scarcely set pen to paper seriously until he was in his fifties and who completed only seven novels, Chandler's reputation is enviable and extraordinary. And deserved?

Tom Hiney's biography does what any literary biography should do. It sends you back to the work. Re-reading The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, especially, there seems little doubt that with these two books Chandler came close to perfection within his chosen form - a case in the life of an urban private eye.

Born in Chicago in 1888, Chandler moved with his mother to England and was educated at Dulwich College. He served with the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War and, re-settled in the US and became a successful Los Angeles oil executive into his mid-forties. Out of work and attracted by the idea of earning his living as a writer, he signed up for an evening class - "Short Story Writing 52AB" - and began selling fiction to Black Mask magazine. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.

Chandler built on the hard-hitting fiction of Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain, which merged social realism and the quick-fire sex and violence of pulp magazines. It married pin-point observation and smart-alec humour with a self-conscious use of rhythmic sentence structure and elaborate metaphor. What he added was a degree of sentimentality which Hiney shows us was totally in accord with Chandler's character. And in Philip Marlowe, his LA detective, those contradictory elements of toughness and a finer sensibility are held nicely in balance.

In spite of Chandler's reputation, it is probably through Humphrey Bogart's portrayal in Hawks's The Big Sleep that we know Marlowe best. As the current Murder Ink season at the National Film Theatre shows, Chandler was a key figure in crime cinema as source and screenwriter. As Hiney makes clear, the screenplay he co-wrote with Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity was the one which broke the over-censorious grip of the Hollywood Production Code.

To Chandler's mind, Bogart was a near-perfect embodiment of his hero, not least through his understanding of what it was to get through the day on a bottle of bourbon and precious little solid food. Like creation, like creator, as Hiney shows: the central fact of Chandler's life was his drinking.

The alcoholic son of an alcoholic father, he followed all too earnestly down that genetic path although, unlike his father, he stuck fast to his mother rather than desert her. In fact, he did it twice. Having taken responsibility for his natural mother, sick with cancer, and supported her from his early twenties until her death some dozen years later, he promptly married Cissy, a woman 20 years his senior. In turn, he nursed her through a slow decline until her death aged 84.

There is a uneasy sense of Chandler's sexuality that slides between the lines of Hiney's book without being precisely pinned down. We learn that he had two brief affairs during his marriage, but discover little of them or the women concerned. His preference was to worship at a distance, as if over-fastidious of the act itself. There are frequent instances of him condemning his contemporaries for what he saw as the sexual excesses of their novels. When, in Chandler's work, Marlowe encounters unbridled female sexuality, his reaction takes misogyny to the point of hysteria. In life, it was only after Cissie's death, and shielded by his own impotence, that he took on the role of would-be seducer.

Indeed, one of Hiney's biggest problems here is that Chandler's life is only extraordinary in its comparative dullness. For much of the time he shunned company, preferring to write copious letters - acute, funny and thankfully liberally used here. Only towards the end did he emerge into a needy gregariousness, but by then he was boorish and pathetic, the sort of drunk you hope will pass you by.

Hiney fleshes out the latter years more fully than Frank McShane's 1976 biography, and his portrait of a suicidal individual in need of, and receiving, psychiatric care is acute. But his tendency to blur the distinction between Chandler himself and his fictional voice is ingenuous. Commenting, for instance, on his claim that by the 1920s Chandler was fighting shy of sensible decisions, Hiney quotes a lively passage denouncing the virtues of common sense. Something from a letter? Only by turning to the back of the book do we find this is not Chandler's voice, nor even fiction written at the time, but an extract from the 1957 Playback.

What we learn of Chandler's methodology is interesting - the separate notebooks in which he noted one-liners, slang expressions, names of potential characters, clothes; his use of small sheets of paper, each holding no more than 15 lines, for- cing him to find "a bit of magic" for each page. And it is fascinating to read his description of the fighting in the First World War trenches, written 20 years before his first novel: "On the firing step the Number One of the gun crew was standing to with half of his body silhouetted above the parapet, motionless against the glare of the light except that his hand was playing scales on the butt of his gun."

In the specificity and the surprise of that final image, the genesis of Chandler's later style is to be found. Just as it is in the best of the fiction that we find his glory - and any biography can only hope to footnote that.