It happened today - July 23, 2015
It might not be appropriate to say Happy Birthday Raymond Chandler given his life. But on this day back in 1888 the creator of hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe was born in Chicago.
I like Chandler for several reasons. First and foremost, I love his writing. I’m a big fan of the noir genre done right. As Chandler himself put it in a 1944 essay (“The Simple Art of Murder”) “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
In that sense there is a vital model here for all of us in Chandler’s heroes even if we do not personally spend much time plucking bullets from our jacket with an air of nonchalance. (And in that sense a writer like the infamous Jim Thompson is working in a wholly different genre; for all his talent Thompson seems to me to justify the jibe aimed at a different author, that he needed to be cured not edited.)
The other thing I like about Chandler is that after resigning a civil service job as stifling, and serving in World War I (he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fought with the Gordon Highlanders in the trenches of France), and responded to the termination of his oil company executive career in 1931 by turning to writing.
The thing I don’t like about Chandler is that he was an irresponsible alcoholic whose drinking and philandering got him fired from that executive job and shadowed him all his days. But as Benjamin Franklin says, the man who’s aground often knows where the shoal lies, and there is redeeming wisdom in Chandler’s writing even if he had trouble tapping into it himself.
Finally, there’s the sheer joy of his writing style, including a great line from Marlowe that I used as my July 18 “Wish I’d Said That”: “I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string.” So compelling was Chandler’s style that a number of his books were turned into classic movies including the 1946 version of The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and with William Faulkner as co-writer of the screenplay (and the classic anecdote about the director having to send Chandler a telegram asking who killed the chauffeur and Chandler not remembering; his plots could get a bit tangled). And the 1978 version starring Robert Mitchum.
I do wish Chandler had had a happier life. But while I’m sorry he had to find his true calling as a writer through his vices not his virtues, I’m glad he did have the guts to follow his star and write truly immortal stories of a hard-boiled dick we’d all like to be, at least occasionally.