The two defining moments of Raymond Chandler are the encounter with his muse and his invention of the private eye Philip Marlowe. Pearl (Cissy) Eugenie Hurlburt was the stepmother of Chandler’s First World War companion Gordon Pascal. During the thirty years Cissy and Chandler were together he was utterly devoted to her.
His next defining moment was his invention of Philip Marlowe. Marlowe featured as the protagonist in the 7 novels Raymond Chandler wrote. Moreover, Marlowe made him very rich and very famous. Raymond Chandler published his first novel, featuring Philip Marlowe, in 1939 at the age of 50, and the last one in 1958, a year before he died at the age of 70.
Late in 1944 Raymond Chandler portrayed the core of his writing skills as follows: “Thinking in terms of ideas destroys the ability to think in terms of emotions and sensations.”
Personal defining moments
I started reading Chandler’s novels in my early twenties. Now after more than 40 years I still can pick up one of them and start reading all over again, and again. Curiosity was what triggered me to read Chandler’s novels. Friends recommended them. Moreover, I wanted to train my English language skills.
All this originated from the idea that reading books in the original language would enhance my command of English. Reading Chandler’s novels actually was for the first time I understood how entertaining it could be to learn another language. Yet there were other reasons.
For a while I studied Dutch literature. There was some comparison with French, English, German, and even Russian literature, however, never any reference was made to American literature. This was strange because movies in the cinema and on television were predominantly American. To this day I remember that my first movie in the cinema was Disney’s Jungle Book (1967).
Chandler’s books were one of my personal defining moments. They were my first more profound introduction in the culture and country of the USA. His novels aroused a love and admiration for this culture and country that never, until this very day, changed. To reassure those who are convinced that there is more in US culture than Philip Marlowe, my favorite poet is Walt Whitman and I love original blues and the country and western music of Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.
7 Enveloping novels
The question is, of course, how to arouse your interest in the 7 novels of Raymond Chandler without giving away the clue. Of course, to discover Philip Marlowe as one of literature’s cutting edge characters is a good teaser.
There is also a lot of truth in Chandler’s novels. From the detailed mid-century crowded and bustling Los Angeles, you will experience the rising perils of modern cities. And all this against the background of nearby Hollywood, during those years the center of the movie business in the world.
As soon as you start reading Chandler’s novels you feel enveloped in a world you truly participate in. A world which flows out of the piercing interior monologues of Philip Marlowe.
One of the strongest assets of Raymond Chandler was that he depicted his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, as a genuine human being. What makes Philip Marlowe stick out as a true human? Marlowe emerges from the superior dialogues, from his precise, and unpredictable actions, yet most specifically because of his captivating interior monologues.
Being human, we almost constantly speak with ourselves. That is why, from Marlowe’s interior monologues, we are immediately able to identify ourselves with him. However, what’s as important, Marlowe represents morals and an attitude we all wished we could share.
These properties make him the sympathetic human we all want to be. A somewhat melancholy personality poignantly magnified against the detailed descriptions of his often cantankerous opponents and fast paced modern life.
Of course, no novel is interesting without a story. No matter how convincing the characters are there must be some action. In the Philip Marlowe novels action is slow. Philip might get hit on the head now and then. He might even try to outrace a police car.
However, most action is inside: people sitting down, or standing and talking. Favorite places are bars and restaurants, Marlowe’s office or his car, the house or the office of the client, and the house where the victim used to live. Even the shooting or killing scenes are hardly worth mentioning.
It’s as with the slow food movement. Raymond Chandler’s novels are slow detective stories. However, no matter how slow they are, once you start to read them, you’re trapped. The best thing to do is pick up the first and end with his last Marlowe story:
- The Big Sleep (1939)
- Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
- The High Window (1942)
- The Lady in the Lake (1943)
- The Little Sister (1949)
- The Long Good-Bye (1953)
- Playback (1958)
When you read a serious biography of Raymond Chandler, such as the one written by Tom Hiney, it is very soon obvious Cissy was Chandler’s muse. In 1920, when Cissy and Raymond fell in love, she and her second husband, Julian Pascal (who’s real name was Goodridge Bowen), took care of Raymond’s mother. Cissy loved her husband, but she loved Chandler more. Cissy and Raymond married in 1923.
Pearl (Cissy) Eugenie Hurlburt was 18 years older than Raymond Chandler, although Chandler did not know at the time of their marriage. Cissy played the piano. When she was young she was a model in New York. She was attractive and charming. However, no matter how much Chandler loved Cissy, his love was not able to get him over his alcoholism.
The decade before Raymond Chandler was born is marked by the rise of the American Temperance Movement. A movement that, when transforming into the Prohibition Party and allying with the rising Women’s Suffrage Movement, became a serious political power. A political power that finally succeeded in banning alcohol from public and private life from 1920 – 1933.
For Raymond’s father the ban came 25 years too late. His marriage officially ended in 1895 due to his violent and relentless alcoholism and absenteeism. For Raymond the ban also came too late. After being knocked unconscious in June 1918 during the First World War in a trench in France he was sent back to England to be trained as a pilot.
During the four months of his training he discovered his taste for alcohol. Although he had some sober periods in between, he never really got rid of his alcoholism. After Cissy died in 1954 he was never sober again until the day he died himself in 1959.
Defining moments at an advanced age
Recently my interest in Raymond Chandler’s novels was aroused again by Tom Hiney’s biography. In a rather short period I read the 7 novels again, however, with other eyes. From Hiney’s biography you start to know Chandler and, through him, to better and differently appreciate his novels.
You start to understand why, even at an advanced age, Chandler wrote the books he did. You also start to understand why, at an even more advanced age, he became one of the best, and best paid, movie writers in Hollywood. As a novel and movie writer he is responsible for many future defining moments of his successors.
If, for me, there is an example of someone who, at an advanced age, was able to turn his life around, and that of many others, despite his never ending alcoholic impairment, it is Raymond Chandler.
Did you ever encounter someone who had such an impact in later life? Please tell us in the comment box.