A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams

January 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)


I would like to have subtitled this book: “Turmoil, Torment, and Triumph in the Life of Raymond Chandler.” A bit florid perhaps, but accurate, as I think you’d agree if you read it.

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888; his mother, Florence Dart Thornton, had emigrated to this country from Ireland two years earlier. Florence and her sister had left their native land largely to escape a domineering mother, but with her choice of husband, Florence went from the frying pan into the fire. Maurice Chandler, a railway engineer, was a brute – wife beater and alcoholic. The marriage crumbled; Florence took her son Raymond and fled back to Ireland. The two then settled in London. Ray matriculated in Dulwich College, a respected public school for boys, where he received a classical British education. (In addition to Raymond Chandler, Dulwich numbers P.D. Wodehouse, C.S. Forester, and Graham Swift among its literary alumni.)

Ray excelled at his studies and was highly motivated. He especially enjoyed reading the classics. He would probably have continued to do well at the college level, but there was no money to finance his higher education. After a fruitless search for work that would be both satisfying and remunerative, he decided to try his luck back in his native land. His mother came with him.

The voyage to America proved fateful. On board the ship, Ray made the acquaintance of Warren and Caroline (Alma to her friends) Lloyd.

The Lloyds were intelligent, cultured, glamorous, and very, very rich. Ray quickly became caught up in the young family’s life. The Lloyds, for their part, welcomed Ray— their daughter, Estelle, developed a mild crush on him— and together they talked about France and Germany, Europe and America. Warren and Alma told Ray about the city they were heading back to, their home, and a place that would forever become associated with Raymond Chandler: Los Angeles, California.

Tom Williams adds: “They were obviously proud of Los Angeles and, at one point, suggested that Ray might want to move there.” At that point in his life, Ray did not know what was in store for him or where he would end up living. But the Lloyds’ suggestion stayed with him, and after a restless sojourn through several other parts of the country, he ended up after all in the City of Angels. The Lloyds welcomed Ray and his mother with open arms, even going so far as offering to share their home with the newcomers. Ray and Florence took them up on this extremely gracious invitation.

(You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been referring to Raymond Chandler as ‘Ray.’ In so doing, I am following the lead of his biographer. I found this usage disconcerting at first, but I got used to it while reading this utterly absorbing book.)

The Lloyd home served as a sort of moveable salon for artists and writers. It was there that Ray met and befriended Gordon Pascal, with whom he would enlist when World War One broke out. Gordon’s father Julian was a pianist; he occasionally accompanied Alma Lloyd, who had a lovely singing voice. Julian’s wife, and Gordon’s stepmother, was also a pianist. Her given name was Pearl Eugenia, but she preferred to be called Cissy.

Cissy Pascal

Cissy Pascal

When Gordon and Ray returned from the service, Ray had to acknowledge that he had fallen in love with Cissy Pascal. Florence Chandler was outraged by  this development; she considered Cissy to be her own friend and an entirely inappropriate love interest for her son. Ray’s mother died in 1923, and he proceeded to marry Cissy, who had divorced Julian, the following year. At the time of the ceremony, Cissy told the pastor  that she was forty-three. She was actually ten years older. Ray was thirty-five.

Ever since his time in England, Ray had entertained thoughts of becoming a writer. At the time of his marriage, his output had largely consisted of poetry. In the meantime, he was also very good with numbers and held various positions having to do with bookkeeping and accountancy. He achieved a position of considerable responsibility (and excellent pay) with an oil company syndicate, but his problems with alcohol, bad behavior around female employees, and other difficulties resulted in his being fired. This happened in 1932. Money, or lack of it – always a problem – precipitated a crisis in his and Cissy’s household.

As with most aspiring writers, Ray was also a voracious reader. He was well acquainted with the ‘pulps,’ magazines printed on cheap paper and filled with fast moving action stories. He knew and admired the work of Dashiell Hammett and others who supplied those stories to magazines like Dime Detective and Black Mask. He thought that if he could produce a few of these often lurid tales and get them accepted for publication, he could make some money from the enterprise. In addition, he could hone his writing skills, with a view to eventually producing a serious work of literature.

“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” appeared in Black Mask in 1933. The rest, in a manner of speaking, is history.

One of the things I really appreciate about Tom Williams’s highly readable biography is that he pays close attention to the evolution of Raymond Chandler as a writer. Writing did not come easily to Chandler; he agonized over every sentence he composed. Yet what comes through to the reader is not agony but artfulness – or just plain art.

black_mask_193501  3-blackmask

2-black-mask  dimedetective338

There’s much more to this story than I have recounted above. The section on Chandler’s work as a Hollywood screenwriter was particularly fascinating. He hit one right out of the park with his first effort: the collaboration with Billy Wilder on the 1944 film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Interestingly, Ray was highly critical of Cain as a writer, but that did not interfere with his turning the novel into a cinematic masterpiece. Of course it helped greatly that Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and that the leads were brilliantly played by Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff) and Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson). Here’s one of the films most famous scenes. It contains the kind of rapier sharp dialogue that Ray was becoming famous for:

In 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death, a remarkable discovery was made almost simultaneously by an American crime writer and a French cineaste: near the beginning of Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance. Sitting outside the office of Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing the good guy for once), thumbing through a magazine, he looks for all the world like someone’s filing clerk.  Seeing it now, it’s easy to understand how the moment passed unnoticed for so long:

Raymond Chandler was a flawed person. The casual flashes of racial denigration that appear from time to time in both his fiction and his letters do him no credit. Although he loved Cissy, he had frequent affairs. In addition to all this, his struggle with alcoholism was lifelong. With Cissy’s death in 1954, he lost all control. Despite the efforts of friends who cared deeply for him, he entered a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression, culminating in his death five years later at the age of seventy.

Nevertheless, in the teeth of great obstacles, some – but not all – of his own making, Raymond Chandler the writer emerged triumphant.

This passage occurs near the conclusion of The Big Sleep:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

From Michael E. Grost, of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection:

The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).

bigsleep  farewell-my-lovely-front-cover

the-high-window  chandlerfront

And Tom Williams offers this succinct and graceful summation of Raymond Chandler’s writing life:

With each apparently futile attempt to write something other than a crime novel he managed to expand the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve within the genre and, in so doing, turned it into art.

Raymond Chandler with Taki, a much beloved pet

Raymond Chandler with Taki, a much beloved pet

There’s much more to be said about Chandler’s life and career. My copy of A Mysterious Something is bristling with post-it flags. I I hope I have the chance to return to this subject. Meanwhile, here are some sources you may wish to look at:

Tom Williams interviewed on The Rap Sheet

The Raymond Chandler entry on Thrilling Detective

Raymond Chandler on Detnovel.com

Chandler was honored several times over last year in a poll conducted by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain.

Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Chandler’s works.

1 Comment

  1. bcstoneb444 said,

    Nice review. I’m reading Williams’s bio now and find it a solid, workmanlike job. I also enjoyed Judith Freeman’s The long embrace : Raymond Chandler and the woman he loved.

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