Book review: A Mysterious Something In The Light: Raymond Chandler, A Life

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HAD Tom Williams wanted a different title for his biography of Raymond Chandler, he might well have chosen “The Great Wrong Place”.

The poet W H Auden, writing in Harpers in 1948, said, “Whatever he may say, I think Mr Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”.

It must have been music to Chandler’s ears. He maintained that writing “pulps” was just a step towards writing a literary novel, and although he never got round to that supposed achievement, his reinvention of the crime genre guaranteed him a place in literary history. Williams quotes: “That he was great, but not in the form that he thought exemplified greatness, is, all told, a minor tragedy in his utterly tragic life.”

“The Great Wrong Place” was where Chandler always was. His mother finally extracted them both from his alcoholic father when he was 12. She had been born in Ireland, and had fled to America, one assumes, to escape the confines of her tyrannical Quaker mother. But Florence Thornton returned as Florence Chandler, with a child and social stigma. Chandler was educated, through the grudging benevolence of an uncle, at Dulwich College. The half-American, half-Irish, fatherless boy thrived in a school founded on the most Victorian of principles; even when he was discouraged from going to ­university.

Perhaps the most significant encounter, other than with the classics he read there, was with a photograph of G F Watts’ Sir Galahad in Dulwich ­Library. Chandler figured himself as a pure knight, and would describe his great creation, Philip Marlowe, as a “shop-soiled Galahad”. Chandler knew as much as about the soiled as the Galahad.

He married a close friend’s stepmother, and had ineffectual affairs, usually when his drinking went from socially embarrassing to job-threateningly obvious. He called his wife “Momma”. Williams has all this, but like a dutiful nephew, or even like Philip Marlowe dealing with General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, discloses all while judging nothing and shuffling some bits of difficult evidence under the carpet.

When Chandler’s wife died, he was in the Greatest Wrong Place. His alcoholism became flamboyant. His prose withered. His uprightness crumbled, and led to fanciful claims of sexual bravado. All of this has led other writers to diagnose Chandler as a repressed homosexual, and Williams is right, and decent, to treat such claims with a healthy smidgeon of scepticism. I far prefer his conclusion, which is neatly tied to Chandler’s own letters: this was a lonely, lonely man. He thought he was a failure and set out to create the conditions in which that insight might become true.

There are points throughout this biography when I wanted to intervene. When Chandler’s mother leaves his father, his father disappears entirely. Surely he had a life, even for a while, away from them? Did Chandler ever learn that his father was dead? Did his friend speak to him again after he ran off with his stepmother?

Did he ever send books back to his influential schoolteacher – he did, after all, try to find out if he could send a food-parcel during the war – and even if he didn’t, doesn’t that reflect an unwarranted sense of shame?

Precise, kindly and necessary as this book is, I still want Philip Marlowe’s biography of Chandler. “I didn’t like the guy. I didn’t know the guy. But when a man is pushed out of a car in front of me so stinko he’s trying to look out of one lens of his tortoise-shell glasses with both eyes and tells me he’s been told I can find his Mom, then I put out a hand at least. My failing.”

A Mysterious Something In The Light: Raymond Chandler, A Life

Tom Williams

Aurum, £20