From a Lonely Place: Raymond Chandler Writes a Letter

From the early 1940s on, when he wasn’t writing, Raymond Chandler spent a lot of his time writing. Letters, that is, in their thousands, on into the nights he lost to insomnia.

From around 1946 – after, with the help, or excuse, of his experiences in Hollywood, he had started drinking again – a bottle would be to hand. His wife, Cissy, seventeen years his senior, was then aged seventy-five and suffering from fibrosis of the lung. Under heavy sedation to kill the pain, she slept in a room in another part of the house, while he would dictate his letters into a machine, alone with his bottle, most often leaving behind the relevant subject, some matter of business, to chase along interesting backroads of thought. Speaking out loud alone in the night.

After Cissy died at the end of 1954, Chandler’s drinking became harder. Harder even than it had been while he was binging through the roaring Prohibition 1920s, when he’d tipped over into alcoholism, like his father, and first caught sight of the side of Los Angeles he would years later set Philip Marlowe moving through.

Harder even than it had been in 1932, when, after thirteen years at the Dabney Oil Syndicate, he was finally sacked for his constant drunkenness and found himself, aged forty-four, out of work and unemployable right in time for the Depression. That’s when he quit drinking and turned to writing for the pulps in the first place.

Ten weeks after Cissy died, in February of 1955, two weeks after the thirty-first anniversary of their marriage, drunk all to hell he climbed into his shower in his pyjamas with a pistol and tried to aim into his mouth, but he stumbled on the tiles and missed, and lay there as the bullet bounced around the stall and the policemen who had already been called to the house came running in from where they’d been talking on the lawn outside.

He was released from the psychiatric ward of the San Diego County Hospital and spent some time in a private clinic, the Chula Vista Sanatorium, near the border with Mexico. After he walked out of there, Chandler kept on writing – the last Marlowe book, Playback (1958), the start of what would have been the next one, The Poodle Springs Story – and he kept on writing letters. As he roamed around Europe and a series of Californian hotels, the drinking continued. His writing hours, the books and articles for publication and the letters, floated like solid ground in the miasma of the days, islands to haul himself onto and sit focused for a while. He died March 26, 1959, after contracting pneumonia.

“I don’t know why the hell I write so many letters,” he once wrote in one. “Enough to sink a small ocean liner,” Al Clark, author of a book on Chandler’s time in Hollywood once put it. “Business correspondence which could easily fill two large wardrobes,” chips in Tom Hiney, a biographer of Chandler’s, who has now put together a new selection of this correspondence, The Raymond Chandler Papers, arranged in chronological order so as to unfold like the autobiography of his thinking, and flaunting about the peachiest dust jacket – a neon sign, shadow black and patiently waiting nightfall and electricity against a powder-blue LA afternoon sky – that you will see published this month.

(“Some day someone ought to explain to me the theory behind dust jacket designs,” Chandler writes within. “I assume they are meant to catch the eye without offering any complicated problems to the mind. But they do present problems of symbolism that are too deep for me…”)

Holding centre spot in a triumvirate with Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain, Chandler was the highest of the original cartographers of a hidden America, a hidden world. Children of Poe, fathers to Camus, in their writing – labelled pulp, hard-boiled, crime, mystery, detective – they laid the foundations for what would become known as the noir world along America’s Pacific coast.

Chandler’s beat was Los Angeles. He saw the shadows spreading between the city’s glaring white sunsplashed buildings, dull bungalow blocks, slums and lingering hobo jungles with refined outsider’s eyes. Chandler was always an outsider, wherever he went. Hollywood, for instance, the place that made his name and most of his money.

HE FIRST FOUND HIMSELF THERE, bewildered, working as a screenwriter in 1943, adapting Cain’s Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder.

This was ironic, as, sick of being compared with Cain, Chandler had come to loathe his writing: “… he is every kind of writer I detest,” he had written in a letter to his publisher’s wife only the year before, “a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls…” After a few weeks working on the film, Chandler built up an intense dislike for Wilder, too, and took to cracking open the bottle whenever the director left the room.

During the early 1940s, Robert Mitchum, who first found himself on a cinema screen the same year Chandler went under contract at Paramount, had run into him sometimes around town. Back then, Mitchum had been a struggling writer himself, and encountered Chandler in bookshops and in a bar called Sullivan’s where the guys who wanted to write went and – noticing the white gloves Chandler wore to hide a skin condition – figured he was a bit affected.

Chandler was always a cheerful snob about what he referred to as his “Classical education,” something he seemed convinced set him apart from most of California. This, though, wasn’t the only thing that stood him on the outside.

His life had gone this way: born in Chicago in 1888, only child of an Irish woman and an alcoholic American railroad engineer whose job kept him constantly away from home. Not that there was a home. Chandler and his mother moved constantly during his first years, hotel room to hotel room, before heading for the Nebraska prairies, lodging with relatives.

When he was seven, his parents divorced. He moved with his mother to Ireland. From there he went to London to attend Dulwich College, a private school. At sixteen, he was sent to colleges in France and then Germany. At seventeen he took up a job in the British admiralty but soon quit, returning to London and more shabby hotel rooms, trying to forge a living from articles he submitted to literary magazines.

At twenty-four, he sailed to America alone, worked behind shop counters, picking fruit and stringing tennis rackets. In 1917, aged twenty-nine, he went to Canada to enlist with the Gordon Highlanders, and travelled to fight in France.

He made sergeant, led his men into machine guns and woke one night to discover his trench being bombarded, and most of his platoon lying dead in pieces around him. Following the war he found Cissy, moved into the oil business and took up drinking.

In a 1944 letter, Chandler sketched a fragment of his broke-off American childhood that sits like a moving picture:

“As a very small boy I used to be sent to spend part of summer at Plattsmouth. I remember the oak trees and the high wooden sidewalks beside the dirt roads and the heat and the fireflies and walking-sticks and a lot of strange insects and the gathering of wild grapes in the fall to make wine and the dead cattle and once in a while a dead man floating down the muddy river and the dandy little three-hole privy behind the house. I remember Ak-Sar-Ben and the days when they were still trying to elect Bryan. I remember the rocking chairs on the edge of the sidewalk in a solid row outside the hotel and the tobacco spit all over the place. And I remember a trial run on a mail car with a machine my uncle invented to take on mail without stopping, but somebody beat him out of it and he never got a dime. After that I went to England and was raised on Latin and Greek…”

That paragraph alone, I would say, is reason enough to justify any volume of Chandler’s late-night letter writing, though it is far from being the only reason.

No one is better about Chandler’s writing than he is himself. It is a stone pleasure to read him, in letter after letter, come right out and say what you’ve known all along about the Marlowe books: “the real problem for a writer now is to avoid writing a mystery story while appearing to do so…” Then, later, declaring the secret that Howard Hawks understood when he filmed The Big Sleep as a dim screwball heaven where plot evaporated along with the rains on the sidewalk: “it doesn’t matter a damn what a novel is about…”

It’s why Marlowe always noticed the stars, bitter and cold and frozen and dim, shining down through LA fogs, unconcerned. Why this, from The Big Sleep, is like a story by Raymond Carver: “I let the door shut and stood with my hand on it, staring at the hand.”

Why the most haunting sentences in Farewell My Lovely might be: “There was loneliness and the smell of kelp and the smell of wild sage from the hills. A yellow window hung here and there, all by itself, like the last orange. Cars passed, spraying the pavement with cold white light, then growled off into the darkness again. Wisps of fog chased the stars down from the sky.”

And why the most haunting chapter in all of Chandler is Chapter 18 of Playback, which steps away from story to describe a quiet back alley, a broken-down cottage, a suicide victim hanging in a converted privy.

All of the battles to be fought over Chandler probably already have been, let’s hope. The tussle around whether he should be considered “a serious writer” started during his lifetime, and seemed to have finally been settled by the mid-1970s, when his reputation was as high as it ever has been. As they do, the backlash snuck in, toward the end of the 1980s. Heavy thinkers started informing us, for our own good, that Marlowe had actually been a fascist all along, see.

If you want to build that argument, there is probably evidence within these letters, waiting to be cut with a razor, tweezered out and collaged together until it does what you want it to do. And if you want to build the converse argument, there’s all the evidence for that here, too.

More valuably, however, in Chandler’s letters there is what the critic and painter Manny Farber described as the “ant-crawling verbosity and sober fact-pointing… that is a fine running example of popular criticism.”

Farber wrote that in 1962, claiming Chandler the letter-writer as a practitioner of Farber’s own favourite type of work, “termite art”: a craftsman “ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.”

Farber was writing about the first published collection of Chandler’s letters, Raymond Chandler Speaking. Some selections from that book, and 1981’s The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, reappear in Hiney’s new collection.

There are not, however, so many letters in Hiney’s new anthology as there are in Speaking about Chandler’s black Persian cat, Taki, which is a shame. But there are a few. Reading Chandler writing about his cat is akin to watching James Cagney dancing. As good as that.

“I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.”

         –– Chandler on Marlowe, his last letter, February 21 1959

First published in The Scotsman, 2000. Also available in Supporting Features.