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Handling Chandler

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Raymond Chandler: A Biography
By Tom Hiney
Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 Pages; $26 cloth.

Tom Hiney's biography of detective-fiction master Raymond Chandler skips the psychobabble and sticks to the facts

By Allen Barra

Has any writer with less of an oeuvre influenced American culture more than mystery writer Raymond Chandler? His first-rate work consists of a few novels (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye), film scripts for Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, a famous essay ("The Simple Art of Murder") or two, and perhaps a few stories. And yet, for millions of people around the world who don't read any other detective fiction, Chandler defined a genre (the hard-boiled detective story), a city (pre- and post-WWII Los Angeles) and a style (film noir).

Certainly no writer of similar impact has gone so long without a definitive biography. Tom Hiney's Raymond Chandler: A Biography fills a major gap, if not in American literature then certainly in American popular culture. Hiney's smooth-reading volume is informative and gloriously free of postmodernist cant.

Chandler, of Anglo-Irish descent, was a bitterly lonely man, an alcoholic for most of his life. He had no close family after the death of his mother, and he ended up hating Sundays and Christmas. He enjoyed almost no close friendships--one person he regarded highly was the humorist S.J. Perelman, whom Chandler knew through the mail and never met in person--and no genuine literary associations (unless one discounts Ian Fleming, whom Chandler befriended early in the British writer's career).

Chandler spent almost all his years after the age of 50 mourning the death of his much older wife, Cissy, and trying to figure out how a writer of detective stories virtually unknown in this country ended up being lionized by British writers such as W.H. Auden, J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh, who labeled Chandler "the greatest living American novelist" (no doubt with the intention of dismissing much of his English-language competition).

As influential as Chandler was here, he was far more popular in Britain, a mystery that even Chandler's famous protagonist Philip Marlowe never solved. "In England," Chandler wrote a friend, "I am an author. In the U.S.A., I'm just a mystery writer."

He wasn't even that until his Academy Award-nominated script for Double Indemnity and the enormous success of Howard Hawks' film version of The Big Sleep helped spark a new interest in his books, all of which were out of print in 1946. (Amazing as it now seems, The Big Sleep got only four reviews when it was published in 1939.) It was word of mouth that revived Chandler's career--in fact, which really gave him a career. He was past 50 before he became a bestselling author.

Hiney's achievement, in an era of deconstructionist word games and psychobabble analysis, is to have crafted an old-fashioned literary biography with new-fashioned insight. Chandler, it turns out, didn't hate Los Angeles as much as we've always been told; he actually liked "the energy and rudeness" of the city, at least until the Depression flattened it out.

And the thinking-man's mystery writer was something of an anti-intellectual. ("Thinking in terms of ideas destroys the ability to think in terms of emotions and reactions," he wrote--a feeling that helps to explain why Chandler never really moved beyond pulp fiction.)

Hiney, relentless as Marlowe, sifts through the myths of Chandler's life, many of them created by Chandler himself, and creates a vivid portrait of a man about whom an acquaintance once said, "Meeting him was like landing at an interesting place but finding it wrapped in fog."

Hiney also accomplishes the more difficult task of appreciating Chandler's achievements without overrating them. "Since the 1940s," Hiney observes, "so many crime writers have emulated Chandler's style that Marlowe has been something of a cliché outside his original stories. Within them, he has lost almost nothing at all."

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