Critics are calling UK author Tom Williams’ debut study of Raymond Chandler, Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something in the Light, a definitive work. The London Times hailed Williams as the “best biographer” of one of America’s foremost detective novelists, and described his book as “packed, insightful, entertaining.” A follow-up review in The Sunday Times said, “Outstanding ... thanks to his biography Chandler himself is a less mysterious something than he was.” And perhaps responding to the impulse to question the requirement of yet another biography of the hard-boiled pioneer (there have been four if you include The Long Embrace, Judith Freeman’s 2008 contemplation on the relationship between Chandler and his wife, Cissy), The Scotsman called Williams’ book “precise, kindly and necessary.”
Williams and I became acquainted while he was doing research and ran across my essay about The Long Goodbye. I’ve been eagerly tracking his progress since then, and I purchased the Aurum Press edition of the biography from the Amazon UK Web site immediately upon publication. Williams is currently shopping his work to U.S. publishers as well, and hopes to release an edition on this side of the Atlantic in the near future.
Having now read A Mysterious Something (that subhead coming from a line near the end of Chandler’s first novel, 1939’s The Big Sleep), I agree with the British critics: this biography is the best all-round portrayal of the troubled California writer. I especially appreciate how Williams has clarified and demystified many things, particularly during the period of Chandler’s life before he started writing crime fiction, but also after Cissy died in 1954.
Williams generously agreed to my request to do an interview for The Rap Sheet. Below are his answers to questions covering everything from his research finds, to what makes Chandler and his series protagonist, private eye Philip Marlowe, particularly appealing to UK readers, to his opinion about the news that Irish novelist John Banville (who composes noir novels under the name “Benjamin Black”) will be penning a new Marlowe story.
Mark Coggins: What first drew you to Raymond Chandler and the idea of writing his biography?
Tom Williams: I think Chandler is endlessly fascinating. I mean the books themselves are some of the best in the canon and his use of language is stunning. But he also lived a compelling life. Brought up in Chicago, then London; failing to make it as a poet in Bloomsbury; coming to L.A. in 1913 just as it was beginning to morph into a city; fighting in World War I; living and working in the heart of L.A. as an oil executive, witnessing the city’s corruption firsthand ... and all this before he wrote his novels. His was a life of drama, of love and loss too. He could almost have been the subject of a novel himself, and it’s been a real privilege to spend time with his papers.
MC: I know you spent a great many hours in Los Angeles and elsewhere doing research and conducting interviews. Did you uncover any new material or previously unknown facts about Chandler during the course of your work? If so, how did they influence your portrayal of him?
TW: Yes I did find quite a bit of new material over the course of my research. I was lucky to find some new letters dating back to 1932 in the UCLA library. It meant that I could add a lot of detail about what happened after Chandler was sacked from Dabney’s [the oil company for which he worked in the 1920s and early ’30s] and explore how he came to write the stories he did. There were also new letters from the end of his life, which helped me understand his last years and how he interacted with the women around him. But there was also material in the archives that I thought deserved to be mentioned: the poetry, for example. Though the early stuff was very poor indeed, the lines he wrote for Cissy in the early ’20s and, indeed, throughout his life, showed a different side to Chandler and I’ve tried to incorporate this throughout the book.
(Left) Cissy Chandler
MC: Chandler’s wife, the former Cissy Pascal, was 18 years older than him. Some authors have suggested that he didn’t know her true age at the time of their marriage in February 1924. Do you think that’s right? Can we assume that he eventually knew?
TW: I’m not sure we’ll ever really know one way or the other. He knocked 10 years off her age when he filled out her death certificate. Perhaps this suggests he didn’t know. Or perhaps it was a noble choice, which would be in character of course. My feeling, for what it is worth, is that he didn’t know how old she was when they married and that, had he known, it wouldn’t have mattered at all.
MC: Before finally turning to crime fiction in the 1930s, Chandler spent a lot of time as an executive in the oil industry. From what I understand of the man--and what I understand of corporate life--he didn’t seem like the sort who would thrive in that environment. Was he a good businessman?
TW: I think he might have been. He certainly thought he was. But, either way, he seems to have enjoyed what he did. Throughout his life Chandler was an assiduous filer of things. I wonder if the corporate life actually suited him, though he may have resented his taking pleasure in the work. That said, some of his pleasure derived from the people he worked with and, after he was sacked, they seem to have disappeared. It’s not clear if that was a result of bad behavior or just that they no longer had anything in common. He tried to do some tax work in the early ’30s but preferred writing by a long chalk, possibly because [tax work] was dull and boring in comparison, and possibly because he no longer got to work with friends.
MC: When you look at the “topology” of Chandler’s life before he began writing seriously, there are a lot of unusual features that stand out: being born in the U.S., but reared in the UK after his parents divorced; British public school education; moving back to the States as a young man; seeing action in the First World War; marrying a much older woman; losing his job due to drinking and womanizing, and all the rest. Do you think any of these experiences were critical in forging his abilities as a writer? For example, could he have been as successful if he stayed in Britain or married a different woman?
TW: To a certain extent we’ll never know, but I think it’s fair to say that without the unique combination of experiences, Chandler would not have written the books he did write. Perhaps, had he worked as a civil servant in London he would have produced a Georgian novel. But hundreds did and very few lasted. Chandler needed to become a modern to write his fiction and L.A. pushed him to change. His love for Cissy was undoubtedly a motivation too. Another woman may not have tolerated his drinking, his occasional dalliances, and he could have easily become something other than a writer in 1932. Then again, Chandler had a drive to write, a compulsion that predated L.A. and Cissy, so perhaps he would have written something, though I suspect it would not have been crime fiction.
MC: Other biographers have suggested that Chandler stopped drinking completely for periods of time. You report that he reduced consumption of alcohol during those periods, rather than quitting outright. How did you reach that view?
TW: Oh, from Chandler’s letters. I found a cache in UCLA dating from 1932, and he is quite open about drinking through the period after his sacking [from Dabney’s], and later letters follow this theme.
MC: The Chandlers’ restlessness--their habit of moving frequently--has been emphasized by other biographers. Do you think too much has been made of it? Is it reflective of some facet of Chandler’s or Cissy’s personality?
(Right) Author Tom Williams
TW: Yes and no. The reason they moved so much was because they liked to spend summers in the mountains--where the air was cooler--and winters in the sun. This may have been to do with Cissy’s lungs, though that is a supposition. In the 1930s they alternated like this every six months pretty much. They continued this pattern into the early ’40s, but settled more once Chandler was working in Hollywood.
MC: Which of Chandler’s novels do you think is the best, and why?
TW: Ha--it depends when you ask me! That’s like asking who is your favorite [James] Bond or what is your favorite Shakespeare play. I think if The Rap Sheet exiled me to a desert island with only one, I’d take Farewell, My Lovely . I think that is Chandler at his very, very best. But please don’t exile me, not yet anyway.
MC: You surprised me a bit by saying that you felt The Big Sleep was better than The Maltese Falcon (1930). I think a lot of Chandler fans would concede that Falcon is an excellent novel, and even if Chandler’s oeuvre is better than Hammett’s, Falcon might beat Sleep. Can you give us some insight into your thinking?
TW: Perhaps this is controversial but I don’t think Sam Spade has the depth of Marlowe. He is an alien--he looks like Satan after all, and how many can identify with that?--and so I don’t think the reader connects with him in the same way as they do with Marlowe. Or at least I didn’t. But I am sure plenty would disagree.
MC: Jean Fracasse, a woman Chandler hired as a personal secretary near the end of his life, is not portrayed well by other biographers. In particular, Chandler’s first biographer, Frank MacShane, makes it clear that he thought she was a gold-digger who hastened the author’s demise. You seem to have a more balanced view. How would you characterize their relationship?
TW: It’s an interesting one. I think Jean Fracasse’s motives will always remain opaque for the simple reason that we can’t ask her. Any younger, attractive woman involving herself with a wealthy older man is going to come under suspicion but that doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve it.
To be blunt, I don’t know what motivated Jean Fracasse any more than Frank McShane or Tom Hiney [Chandler’s second biographer] did, and so I tried to be balanced in my view, using the evidence I found to construct the events of the late ’50s. I think one thing is sure, though, Ray valued her contribution: he dedicated Playback  to “Jean and Helga.” [Helga Greene was his literary agent.]
MC: Arguably, the reception for Chandler’s work has always been stronger in the UK than in the U.S., and now that your book has been published, two of the four Chandler biographers have come from Britain. What is it about Chandler that makes him particularly appealing to the UK audience?
TW: I think Marlowe is a strangely European hero. His willingness to take on the rich and powerful tied neatly with some British unease about American influence after the war. Marlowe’s mantle was taken up by Bond (a hero who made Britain feel powerful, even when British power was fading). We Brits like that. We’ve always love an underdog and Marlowe is the ultimate underdog.
MC: What surprised you most about Chandler during your research?
TW: Without doubt, the richness and variety of the letters. Chandler was one the great letter writers and the more time I spent with his missives the more I was in awe.
MC: Now, 53 years after his death, do you think Chandler would be satisfied with his literary legacy?
TW: I do wonder about that. But I also wonder, were we to ask him somehow, whether he would point us to the penultimate paragraph of The Big Sleep. [See image below.]
The final spread of the first edition of The Big Sleep. Click on this photograph for an enlargement.
MC: Could Chandler have written a “straight” literary novel?
TW: I think he wanted to. At one point, he started a third-person novel, with hardly any murder in it and without Marlowe at all. He couldn’t get it to work and set about rewriting it. That novel became The Long Goodbye. Had he not tried to keep writing a great book, he would never have achieved everything that he did. In the end I’m not sure it matters whether his books are straight or not. They’re damn fine books and that is that.
MC: How do you feel about John Banville being commissioned to compose a new Philip Marlowe tale?
TW: I’m cautiously optimistic. You can read more about my views in the blog post I did for The Guardian.
MC: Finally, what question would you ask Chandler if you could?
TW: Who killed [chauffeur] Owen Taylor, really?
READ MORE: “Raymond Chandler, Gritty Enchanter,” by Michael Dirda (The Times Literary Supplement).