The man behind Marlowe

Raymond Chandler: A Life, by Tom Williams, Aurum, £20, 386 pages

Who wrote this? “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” Or this: “His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish.” Or this: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” Sorry, there are no prizes – because who could doubt the authorship of such high-flown low-talk?

No American novelist, not even F Scott Fitzgerald, wrote as many perfect sentences as Raymond Chandler. In doing so, Chandler gave the lie to Fitzgerald’s famous claim about there being “no second acts in American lives”. Chandler had lived 51 of his 70 years when his first Philip Marlowe mystery, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. Before that, Tom Williams reminds us in Raymond Chandler: a Life, Chandler had been a no-better-than-average day boy at Dulwich College, an infantryman in the first world war, a bookkeeper, and a middling executive in the Californian oil business. It was only his dismissal from this last position, for alcohol-fired absenteeism, that pushed him into putting pen to paper. The paper was small. Chandler bought reams of standard-sized yellow letter stock, but cut it in half before rolling it into his typewriter “turned up longways”. With the typewriter set for triple spacing, he got only 150 or so words to a page – just enough, he said, to ensure his prose packed the required punch: “If there isn’t a little meat on each, something is wrong.”

And, indeed, carnivores never go hungry when reading Chandler. His prose might have been prime Porterhouse but his plotting was never quite the potato. Directing Bogart in the movie version of The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks telegrammed Chandler to say that neither he nor his screenwriters could work out who had killed the chauffeur. Chandler replied to say that he didn’t know either.

But nobody reads Chandler – as they do Agatha Christie – for the intricacy of his puzzles. “I guess maybe there are two kinds of writers,” Chandler once said. “Writers who write stories and writers who write writing.”

Though he knows that the “combination of the spondee of ‘Farewell’ with the amphibrach, ‘My Lovely’ gives [the title of Chandler’s second novel] a haunting quality”, Tom Williams isn’t a writer who writes writing. “The plan he had outlined in 1939 had not unfolded as planned ... ” How many seconds with a thesaurus would it take to lose that ugly repetition?

Alas, Williams isn’t any more of a storyteller – at least in the sense that he has little to add to the tale told in Frank MacShane’s The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976) and retold once already in Tom Hiney’s Raymond Chandler (1997). Williams claims to have unearthed more detail on Chandler’s early life, but the use he makes of it ceases being perfunctory only in order to be perverse.

In the preface we learn that Chandler, whose father had been a mean drunk, was ineluctably drawn to the bottle himself. A few pages later, in chapter one, we are told that Chandler was a chivalrous protector of women because his father had beaten his mother. A slapdash plotter he might have been, but Chandler would never have dared dream up such a contradictory character.

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