Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hard Boiled

Today is the birthday of hard boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler. He was born in Chicago in 1888, but he moved to England as a boy and spent most of his childhood there. He went to the exclusive Dulwich College, where he was a couple of years behind a kid named Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

Chandler spent most of his working life as an oil executive in Los Angeles. In his mid-forties he found himself out of a job, and he turned to writing stories for the pulp magazines. Atmospheric thrillers about smart aleck tough guys suspended midway between the underworld and an often corrupt police department. He was 51 when he published his first novel.

The Big Sleep was narrated by a world-weary but stubbornly romantic detective named Philip Marlowe, who had a knack for annoying people with guns, and described his mishaps in colorful similes. Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the film version. Chandler also collaborated with film director Billy Wilder on a script of the James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity. It was the first product in an entirely new artform called "film noir." He wrote another screenplay from a Patricia Highsmith novel for director Alfred Hitchcock, titled Strangers on a Train.

Raymond Chandler appears three times in A Book of Ages. My favorite anecdote is about his first meeting with fellow crime novelist Dashiell Hammett at a Black Mask dinner in 1936. Hammett, who was six years younger than Chandler, had written his last novel four years earlier; Chandler's first novel wouldn't be written for another three years. Similar novelists, different career arcs.

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