The Big Sleep

By Raymond Chandler


Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but from the age of seven was bought up in England where he attended Dulwich College. After studying in France and Germany, he returned to London in 1907, and reluctantly joined the Civil Service. He left to take up writing, and worked for a variety of newspapers as a reporter, essayist, book reviewer, and writer of verse. In 1912, he returned to America and eventually settled in California. After serving with the Canadian Army during the First World War, Chandler worked in business, becoming a well-paid executive for an oil company. However, as the Depression began to bite, he lost his job and returned to his writing, producing stories for pulp magazines such as Black Mask (founded in 1920 by H.L. Menken and George Nathan).

His first novel, The Big Sleep was published in 1939. It was an instant success, and introduced the cool, wisecracking detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe went on to feature in Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister (1949) and The Long Good- Bye (1953).

Many of his books have been adapted to film, and he himself worked as a scriptwriter. In a letter to Charles W. Morton in 1945, he wrote that, "If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come." And despite achieving success, notably receiving Oscar nominations for the screenplays of Double Indemnity (1944 - he shares the credit with the film's director, Billy Wilder) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), his experiences in Hollywood were far from wholly positive. "The making of a motion picture," he wrote, "is an endless contention of tawdry egos, almost none of them capable of anything more creative than credit stealing and self-promotion." Also: "Like every writer, or almost every writer, who goes to Hollywood, I was convinced in the beginning that there must be some discoverable method of working in pictures which would not be completely stultifying to whatever creative talent one might happen to possess. But like others before me, I discovered that this was a dream."

He was elected President of the Mystery Writers of America, but during his later years he suffered increasingly from depression and general ill health. He died in California in 1959.

Dilys Powell said his writing was "a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry." From Elizabeth Bowen: "A craftsman so brilliant, he has an imagination so wholly original, that no consideration of modern American literature ought... to exclude him." And W. H. Auden wrote that Chandler's thrillers are "serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art."