PULP P.I. – Raymond Chandler, part I

18 Jan


I do not regard myself as a dead shot, but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favourite weapon is a twenty dollar bill – Raymond Chandler in a letter to a fan.

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1888 and died in La Jolla, California in 1959. This period covers what, for the modern world, is a vast period of growth and change in the public consciousness, and whilst there are few writers who embody ‘pulp’ in the public domain as much as Chandler, it is his personal life and its pulp characteristics which has fascinated me more than his writing. I was struck by a comment from my fiancée that Raymond Chandler, as a persona or public figure, was nothing like the private man that he (seemingly) was. She hadn’t pegged him for the romantic type, and was surprised at a quotation from a letter of his written shortly before his death. To a female friend he wrote, “what a man wants and needs, and surely a woman, too, is the feeling of a loving presence in the home, the tangible and ineffable sense that a life is shared.”

Chandler spanned modern times*, and his life was one of high-brow and low-brow rolled into one and synthesised into a genre and style of writing he all-but invented. The rhythms and tropes he uses are so ingrained in the public psyche now that to hear brilliantly ridiculous similes such as:

“The heart-rending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel. The bright-eyed woman said: ‘You a friend of theirs?’ In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.” (The High Window, p.100)

really invokes the sense of the noir literatary style that he created, and – in his days working as a Paramount screenwriter – brought to Hollywood. His acerbic wit and playful nature with words trumped even the stylings of his contemporary Dashiell Hammett (whom Chandler credited with the creation of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre).

But let’s go back to Ray for a moment. It is not his books, or his screenplays, that are the reason he is a pulp persona. It is Ray himself. And some biography might help illustrate this. His life started out in a nomadic way, and this stuck with him until the rather lonely end of his life. His father was American, his mother Irish, and on his father’s leaving the family at an early age Ray was uprooted from his Midwest metropolis, Chicago, and planted firmly in the middle of turn of the century England. Funded by an uncle, he attended Dulwich College, where he probably first encountered ‘Marlowe’, in the form of a school house name.

Transatlantic travel is a now taken for granted (I should know) but as a child in 1900, it was hardly an everyday experience. Chandler learned a very old-fashioned form of English decorum – and likely an English social detachment too – which mixed peculiarly with his American heritage. To the end of his life, he spoke with a mixed, though predominantly English, accent, and his wife Cissy even pronounced their name with a soft, standard-British ‘a’ (“Chondlah” in phonetic American English). They both hosted dinner parties and would do nothing without the proper social mores in place. Yet he had a (sometimes hypocritical) hatred of the bourgeoisie and class divisions in English society, and his social charm was coated with an acid tongue that could get him into trouble.

Returning to friends in Los Angeles after a failed position in the home office which he supported by writing magazine reviews, he gradually became a regular member of a crowd of musicians writers and artists calling themselves “The Optimists”. Here he met (the then-married) Pearl ‘Cissy’ Eugenia Hurlburt, and their relationship developed over several years of mutual interest, flirting and Ray’s seduction. Eventually, Ray convinced himself that Cissy was unhappy and demanded she divorce her pianist husband to marry him.

Perhaps to escape this drama, but also because he felt so strongly about the War, Ray enlisted in the Canadian armed forces to fight in Europe. His time on the front is something he never spoke of afterwards other than to write in a letter, “once you’ve had to lead a platoon of men into direct machine gun fire, nothing is ever the same again.” His platoon was wiped out, and after recovering in England, he moved back again to LA via Seattle.

Chandler was American, he was British, he fought in the Canadian services in France. He was a kind of nowhere man, and perhaps a victim of time and circumstance, but this defined him to a large extent. He claimed that he was fascinated with and had to learn the American vernacular like a foreign language, and the words and phrases he used in his stories and books seem to have been genuinely learned from the seedy kinds of people he wrote of.

His upbringing taught him the old, opprobrious ways of England but his character and life in America taught him the value of the new. He stood at the crux of pulp as it formed, just as he stood at the crux of Los Angeles as it was developing, a self-invented city for those wishing to migrate to a better life. Eventually those who moved there fell into the superficial glamour of the entertainment industry or into the increasingly ghettoised gutters, and it was the perfect place for such a split personality as Ray to live. The seedy underworld and the glamorous Hollywood events spoke to his schizoid sensibilities.

Eventually he and Cissy married, but only after Ray’s mother’s death. They then proceeded to live in over 30 places throughout LA and nearby suburbs as Ray moved from his accountant’s job to being a full time writer via publishing stories in Pulp Fiction magazines like Black Mask, and imbibing enough whisky to stun an African elephant. And because he was the perfect embodiment of ‘high’ and ‘low’ – the English gentleman and the glamorous LA migrant – his novels trod the pulp line beautifully, though it was in England that he was an ‘author’ whilst being only a crime ‘writer’ in the US.

Between 1888 and 1959 the world moved from letters to the telephone, from books to movies to television, from transatlantic sea voyages to airplanes. The list of cultural upheavals in Chandler’s lifetime could go on. As mass media developed, so Ray was working in mass literature, embracing the changes, exploiting the quick-buck pulps and welding his own psychology – his split character and all his quirks – onto a character called Philip Marlowe. Like Ray, Marlowe was the heavy drinking, sensitive but witty knight in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress; he was a modern man with an epic-heroic heart, and as such he became a pulp icon.

Before generations of celebrity worship and media saturation, however, we have less of an idea of the real Ray. Now we care as much about Tom Cruise’s religion as about his movies, as much about Amy Winhouse’s drug use as about her albums. I could tell you that Raymond Thornton Chandler was an alcoholic, overly-sensitive and shy man, whose psychological needs were many and borne mainly by his wife. That he was idealistic to a fault, fell in love with most women he met and even courted some after Cissy’s death with lewd sketches and expensive gifts. That he collected ‘amuels’, little glass animals of which he owned many, and wrote second-rate poetry to a wife eighteen years his senior whom he cheated on many times.

But to Cissy he was still her “Raymio” and “Gallibeoth”, and perhaps it is better left to pulp PI Philip Marlowe – and the words his creator has left to us – to embody Chandler’s pulp legacy. From “The Simple Art of Murder”:

“But down these streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be…a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world… He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

* * *

Hugely indebted to The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler & the woman he loved by Judith Freeman, The Raymond Chandler Papers edited by Frank MacShane & Tom Hiney, and various editions of the novels.

* Note: It’s amazing the associations one can go through for pulp. Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936) took a swipe at economic collapse and industrialisation (Chaplin, a modern pulp iconic if there ever was one, even turned his iconic status into criticism of Hitler in “The Great Dictator”). Bob Dylan, another pulp synthesiser of the folk music, poetry and rock and roll, took “Modern Times” as his latest album title, and courted controversy even among fans for stealing song structures and lyics from old folk songs. What goes around…

One Response to “PULP P.I. – Raymond Chandler, part I”

  1. wiebke January 19, 2008 at 9:18 am #

    Hi! I really want to subscribe to pulpable but I could not find a feed button (and I don’t know if there is any other way to do it). Do you know how to install a feed button? See you on Friday!! Yay!! :)

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