Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888. His family life was unsettled by the frequent and often extended absences of his alcoholic father. His father eventually disappeared altogether and stopped providing support. Chandler's mother, forced to rely on the goodwill of her family moved to England to live with Chandler's grandmother and aunt. The new family address was Whitefield Lodge, 77 Alleyn Park. The young Chandler initially started his English education at a school in Upper Norwood, but in the September term of 1900, then aged twelve, he was enrolled at Dulwich College. He remained at the College for five years where he won prizes for mathematics and general achievement. After leaving Dulwich he studied foreign languages in France and Germany from 1905-7 and then returned to England and became a naturalised British subject in order to take the Civil Service examination. Although he quickly acquired a position as a Civil Service clerical officer he soon became bored and landed a job as a reporter, firstly with the Daily Express and later the Western Gazette. During this period he started to write poetry, some of which was published, including one for the Westminster Gazette in 1909;
Come with me, love, across the world,
Ere glory fades and wings are furled,
And we will wander hand in hand,
Like a boy and girl in a playroom land.
Although he was later dismissive about his early poetry, describing it as 'Grade B Georgian', Chandler published twenty-seven poems and his first story 'The Rose-Leaf Romance'
Restlessness resulted in his returning to the US in 1912. There he drifted into a number of occupations, varying from working on an apricot ranch, stringing tennis rackets and, after studying bookkeeping, working as an accountant at a creamery. This erratic lifestyle was at least partially caused by his problems with alcohol.
The United States entry into the First World War offered the unsettled young Chandler fresh challenges and he volunteered for service with the Gordon Highlanders 0f Canada in 1917. As a junior NCO he saw action in France and sustained concussion. True to his restless nature, he transferred to the RAF from 1918-19. He returned to the US in 1919, working firstly in a bank in San Francisco and then as a staff member on the Los Angeles Daily Express before becoming bookeeper for an oil syndicate. In 1924 he had married Pearl Cecily Hulbert. She was eighteen years his senior, twice married and divorced. It was to be a spectacularly successful marriage. When he lost his job during the Great Depression - he was sacked for drinking and absenteeism - he began writing stories for Black Mask Magazine. At the age of forty-five, with the support of his wife, Chandler devoted himself entirely to writing.
Between 1933 and 1939 he only produced a total of nineteen pulp-fiction stories for detective magazines. The theme of his fourth published story Killer in the Rain was used by Chandler in 1939 in his first novel, The Big Sleep. The story introduces, for the first time one of the great characters in crime fiction, Philip Marlowe, the fast-talking, hard-drinking, unlucky in love, private investigator and White Knight of the Los Angeles streets. It has been said that Chandler named his hero after the House, of which he was a member, at Dulwich College.
"The pebbled glass door pane is lettered in flaked black paint: 'Philip Marlowe ..Investigations.' It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilisation. The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in - there is nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle. But not if you're from Manhattan, Kansas."
There followed a rapid succession of Marlowe novels, Farewell,My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943). By this time Chandler's had begun to excite interest in Hollywood and in 1944 Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the screenplay of Double Indemnity based on a novel by James M. Cain. Altogether, six of Raymond Chandler's novels were successfully filmed. The death of his wife in 1954 left Chandler devastated, nevertheless he continued writing and his last completed novel Playback still featuring Philip Marlowe, was published in 1958.
Chandler died in1959 in California from pneumonia brought on by a particularly heavy drinking binge. According to Tom Hiney, one of his biographers, Chandler's favourite tipple was the 'Gimlet': two parts gin and one part lime juice. In a jokey sketch, he had once written that his reply to a doctor who asked him how much he drank was: "Not a terribly large amount, really, a bottle of scotch, eight or nine cocktails (doubles of course) and various wines at luncheon and dinner". But was he joking?
An uncompleted novel, Poodle Springs was finished by Richard B. Parker. In 1998, Tom Stoppard wrote a screenplay of the book which was turned into a television movie.
The above is one of an occasional series of biographies of persons omitted from The Dulwich Society's Who Was Who in Dulwich which is available from The Art Stationers, Dulwich Village £6.95