Whenbbut In LA in the early 1930s, around 2000 people are arriving in the city per week. Driven by the great depression, they were looking for a better turn of fortune.
In the final years of prohibition, black market alcohol was booming, and the notorious LAPD had untold resources to service the needs of the city’s power elite.
Chief of police, James E Davis, directed a campaign of brute force and strong-arm tactics against vagrants and any opposition towards city hall. He was sponsored by the city’s organised crime and media execs.
It was the perfect setting for a noir tale like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and the real-world stomping ground of one soon-to-be inventor of a new grade of the detective novel, Raymond Chandler.
In LA, the only difference between crime and business was capital, Philip Marlowe.
Raymond Chandler, an accountant turned oil exec and alcoholic turned writer, has an inspiring “rags to riches” journey into becoming one of the most revered detective fiction writers and creator of a new pulp-literary hybrid genre.
He was born in Chicago in 1888 to an alcoholic father who abandoned the family and created a ghost for Chandler, who did his best to avoid repeating his father’s behaviour when sober. He moved to London as a boy and received an education at Dulwich College, where his alums included the writers P.G Wodehouse and C.S.Forester.
Instead of going to university after college, he went for a different kind of education, one that allowed him a decade of dabbling in various careers and inhabiting different worlds. He was a poet, journalist and civil servant before returning to the US in 1912.
During the first world war, he enlisted with the Canadian Army and was thrown immediately into action on the front line in France; his battalion endured gas attacks and heavy bombardment. Nevertheless, he survived three front-line tours in some of the bloodiest battles of a nasty war and was seconded to the newly formed Royal Air Force when the war ended. More on the impact of his wartime experience is below.
Moving to LA after the end of the war, he met and fell in love with his future wife, Cissy, who was married, and to the knowledge of Chandler, ten years older than she, though the truth that he may or may not have discovered was that she was 18 years older. While Cissy divorced her husband to make room to marry Chandler, his mother disapproved of the union, and they waited six years to kick off a marriage that would endure the next thirty.
By 1931, Chandler was a highly-paid executive at Dabney Oil Syndicate, and he had also descended into severe alcoholism leading to a separation between him and Cissy. A year later, he was fired for conduct including disorderly behaviour and regularly disappearing from the office on a bender.
Losing his job was a wake-up call for Chandler, who must’ve been aware of the parallels between him and his father. He cleaned up, and on hearing Cissy was unwell, he went and was accepted back by her.
Chandler then, aged 44, threw himself into two things; caring for his wife and forging a new career as a novelist.
“It was a precarious career move for someone in his mid-forties who had never written any fiction before, but Chandler was optimistic, and he soon hit upon the type of fiction he would write”, Tom Hiney, biographer.
After discovering the pulp stories of the Black Mask serial, Chandler found his calling and set about learning the art of fiction writing by learning, copying and rewriting published stories. It was a monumental effort of self-learning, and less than a year after he set out, he published his first story in The Black Mask and continued a career that included novels and Hollywood screenplays.
Apart from the delightful proof that it is never too late to master your craft and transform your life, there are a few more lessons to be taken from the life of Raymond Chandler.
Purging the kryptonite
I’m crossing storylines here, but Superman’s poison, kryptonite, is the perfect analogy for Chandler’s alcoholism. That thing he saw as part of himself was also killing him.
Chandler managed to avoid heavy drinking until his late thirties but then fell to his poison which made his behaviour increasingly erratic. During his ‘lost years,’ he moved away from his wife, lost good friends and made several public suicide threats digging himself lower and deeper into an alcoholic pit.
It was only after kicking the booze that Chandler had the clarity to throw himself into his new career.
“Bolstered by a fresh surge of self-confidence following his physical rehabilitation, Chandler listed himself as a ‘Writer’ in the Los Angeles telephone book” and began a journey that beckoned in a new road that would last decades.” (Hiney)
Finding his anchor
Chandler and Cissy overcame enormous odds to be together. She was married, much older, the stepmother of one of his army friends, and his mother was aghast at the idea of them marrying.
Their marriage lasted 30 years and endured Chandler’s years lost to alcohol and a separation. Even after he stopped drinking, Chandler had a penchant for falling out with people meaning he probably wasn’t the easiest person to spend vast quantities of time with.
She was his anchor, the common theme alongside his writing that propelled his success and allowed him to publish over 30 pieces of work spanning short stories, novels and screenplays.
A self-created masterclass
It was driving along the Pacific coast that Chandler first considered a career as a detective genre writer.
“This was in the great days of the Black Mask [a pulp crime magazine], and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000-word novelette and sold it for $180.”
With his objective in mind, Chandler signed up for a short story writing evening class while digesting books on style and structure and rewriting published stories.
He collected names and titles and snippets of conversation that he heard on the street and threw himself into an intensive period of learning that resulted, in less than a year, in the publication of his first story in the Black Mask Magazine.
That story was ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,’ published in 1933. But Chandler didn’t stop learning, and his process of rewriting stories of top writers such as Hemingway or crime writer Erie Stanley Gardiner continued throughout his career.
Channelling your inner Chandler
I hope you’ve found some valuable insights here, whatever it is you are seeking. The life of Raymond Chandler serves as a checklist for my writing ambitions. By dipping into the following elements of his journey, I see part of my own path laid forward.
- Getting rid of your poison
- Holding onto your anchors
- Create your masterclass.
Good luck with your storytelling.