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The Big Sleep | Study Guide

Raymond Chandler

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Raymond Chandler | Biography


Family Background

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. Chandler's father, Maurice, grew up in Pennsylvania but at 21 moved to Chicago to find work as railroads expanded in the 19th century. He worked as a railway engineer for seven years before meeting Chandler's mother, Florence. Florence was born in Ireland but moved to the United States to live with her older sister Grace. Because of her husband's work, Florence Chandler spent considerable time alone with their son Raymond. Maurice Chandler drank heavily—his son referred to him as an alcoholic—and his drinking, coupled with the frequent absences from home, soon caused the marriage to crumble. When Raymond Chandler was seven, his parents divorced, and he and his mother moved to Europe. Chandler never saw his father again.

Education and Work Experiences

At the time of his parents' divorce Chandler and his mother moved back to Waterford, Ireland, then to London with Ethel (Chandler's aunt) and his grandmother. Florence's family had disapproved of her marriage, so her return to a moralistic and status-conscious household was treated as a failure. However, the family was committed to educating Raymond as well as they could given their resources.

Chandler attended Dulwich College. The school provided a grounding in the classics (which he claimed helped him think more clearly about modern culture), training in writing clear prose, experience in rigorous sports such as rugby, and role models for moral behavior such as headmaster A.H. Gilkes.

Chandler wanted to be a writer, but his family decided he needed to enter the civil service. They sent him to study in France, then in Germany, to prepare. In 1907 he returned to Britain, where he took and passed the civil service exams. In 1912 Chandler moved back to the United States where he held various jobs; he strung tennis rackets and kept the books for a creamery in Los Angeles. In 1917 he enlisted in the Canadian army and served in World War I (1914–18) in France. He was discharged in 1919.

Marriage and the Oil Industry

Returning to Los Angeles he found work as a bookkeeper for an oil syndicate. His mother came to live with him there until she died in 1924. That same year Chandler married Pearl "Cissy" Pascal. She was 18 years older than he was and had a reputation as a bohemian: an artist's model, she had been painted and photographed nude. She also moved in artistic circles where opium use was common. Their marriage was happy for a while, and Chandler adored her to the end of his life. Chandler was also successful in his career with the oil syndicate, rising to auditor and then to executive with considerable authority and responsibility.

However, the Great Depression (1929–39) brought stress to the business. Chandler started to drink and have affairs, sometimes disappearing for days at a time. In 1932 he was fired. Although his affairs put a strain on his marriage to Cissy, they remained married until her death in 1954.

Return to Writing

Chandler spent most of a year looking for a new direction and eventually turned to writing. He started with detective stories for inexpensive pulp fiction magazines, largely to make money. In 1933 he published his first detective story in Black Mask, considered the best of the pulp magazines, publishing writers such as Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett. The editors found Chandler's prose exceptionally well-polished, especially for a new writer. He wrote steadily, publishing 16 more stories by 1938. However, Chandler and his wife continued to face financial difficulties, as did many others during the Depression.

The Big Sleep, Chandler's first novel, marked a turning point in his career in several ways. First it was published the same year Pocket Books began the first line of mass-market paperbacks, making The Big Sleep part of a larger market and social trend. Mystery novels with a gritty, street flavor were increasing in popularity. Second The Big Sleep reflected what Chandler called "cannibalizing," or re-using material he previously published, a common practice among pulp writers, who cobbled together several stories into a "fix-up" novel. Third, and most important, The Big Sleep introduced the character of Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was not the first private eye, or even the first tough-guy private eye, but he became an archetype for the genre. The protagonist in seven novels written by Chandler, he maintained a prominent archetypal role in the genre, with some authors even using the character after Chandler's death.

Chandler's student house at Dulwich was Marlowe, named for the playwright contemporary of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was an impressive writer whose life was cut short at age 29, when he was found stabbed in an alley, possibly as a result of spy work that may have been commissioned on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. Chandler's character Marlowe was as tough as any of the detectives filling the pages of Black Mask but more sensitive and articulate.

The Big Sleep marked the turning point in terms of financial and artistic success for Chandler, leading to greatly increased earnings and raising the bar for the detective story with its "emotional and intellectual honesty and integrity." Chandler published several other well-received novels: Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). In several instances Chandler published versions of his works as magazine stories first, then revised and expanded them for book publication.

Many of his works were then filmed, gaining broad exposure for his work and generating additional income, although he did not often act as a screenwriter for his own work. The Big Sleep, for example, was adapted to the screen in part by southern writer William Faulkner. Starting in 1943, when Paramount hired him to collaborate on the script for the film Double Indemnity (1944), Chandler worked off and on as a Hollywood screenwriter. Although he didn't like the experience or process much, the work made him very wealthy. His scripts for Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia (1946) were nominated for Academy Awards.

Chandler's Personal Issues

Chandler and his wife faced personal problems throughout their marriage. Some came from their relative levels of sexual experience: Chandler's wife was 18 years older than him and had been married twice before. On the other hand, Chandler was sexually inexperienced when they married. Other issues were health related: both Chandler and his wife fought illnesses at various times, and Chandler spent a lot time caring for his wife before she died in 1954. Chandler was a heavy drinker, fighting alcoholism throughout his life. After his wife died, he attempted suicide and was repeatedly hospitalized for depression and alcohol-related issues. He died on March 26, 1959.

Chandler's Death and Legacy

When Raymond Chandler died in 1959, he had gained a considerable literary reputation. Figures as different as poet W.H. Auden and novelist Ian Fleming praised his work. Along with Dashiell Hammett, Chandler is praised for raising American detective fiction from the pulps to the level of art. His novels are regularly ranked not just among the best detective novels, but as some of the best novels of any sort.

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