Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler came late to writing at the age of forty-four after he was sacked from his job as an oil company executive. His alcoholism was a contributing factor in his sacking. Chandler began reading mystery and detective stories in Black Mask magazine and decided that he could write better stories. His first submitted story was accepted by Black Mask in 1933.

Chandler’s character, Philip Marlowe, is iconic and has shaped our idea of what a hard-boiled detective is. Chandler wrote seven novels featuring Marlowe, some of which were made into Hollywood films. He came to be known for his writing style which emphasised wit, atmosphere and action over plot. Apart from novels and short stories, he also wrote screenplays for Hollywood films.

Interviewer’s note: This is a fabricated account, but all the words attributed to Raymond Chandler were expressed by him in a wide variety of contexts.

Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder, a famous director and screenwriter, collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the film Double Indemnity (1944)

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“It’s very peculiar, you know, that the only person who’s caught the Californian atmosphere in prose is an Englishman – Chandler,” Billy Wilder told me. The director worked recently with Raymond Chandler at Paramount. “He’s a very difficult man, a sort of rather acid man, like so many former alcoholics are.”

Did you share any jokes?

“Very rarely,” Wilder said with a laugh. “He would just kind of stare at me.”

The taxi moves through the empty, tree-lined streets of La Jolla near San Diego. This is a wealthy neighbourhood, where Chandler and his wife Pearl have just bought a house, after decades of moving between rentals on an almost annual basis. The gradual success of his novels, starting with The Big Sleep in 1939, and the film of that novel released this year, have made this possible.

It’s a large house just across the road from the sea. The door is opened by a maid, who takes my hat and shows me into a large lounge room. There is a big window looking out at the Pacific, but the curtains are half-drawn against the midday sun. In the gloom sits a man, a woman, and a cat.

Rayond and Cissy Chandler
Raymond and Cissy Chandler
Raymond Chandler’s wife Pearl (‘Cissy’) was 18 years older than Chandler. He was grief-stricken after her death

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Chandler stands to say hello. He is 58, of medium height, has black wavy hair and eyes that seem eager to take offence. In a tweed jacket and grey flannels, he looks like a grumpy college professor. Pearl is 18 years older and an invalid, and remains seated. She is wearing a dress designed for a woman half her years, which emphasizes the gap in their ages. After we exchange greetings, they both stare at me in silence.

“Nice area,” I offer.

Chandler says it’s good not to be in Los Angeles, a “hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup”. He says it almost defiantly, as though daring me to disagree. When I grunt and ask a question about something else, he looks mildly affronted.

The atmosphere in the room is close. Pearl starts to talk to the cat, nothing special, just asking if it feels hungry. But as Chandler stays silent and her voice rambles on, I begin to panic – not that I am completely unprepared for this unusual household. While preparing for the interview, I located very few people who actually knew the Chandlers, but those who did all emphasized a certain strangeness. Apparently, after they first met and started their affair, Pearl divorced her husband, but Raymond wouldn’t marry her until his mother died. They wed two weeks later and became loners, by most accounts, which might help explain their constant changes of address.

The cat chat dies away. A few more polite questions from myself receive shrugs and further silence, as though to emphasise their unfamiliarity with encountering other people. Chandler begins to fill his pipe and I notice his hands, like his face, are unnaturally pale, virtually white. He avoids my eyes and glances at the wall almost with despair, as though the whole idea of my visit is no longer welcome. Finally he announces that The Interview will take place after lunch, and we move into the dining room, Chandler walking as though there is something wrong with his joints.

Pearl seems to be drifting, but she makes it into the other room. One person I spoke to, in a position to know, says Pearl knocked ten years off her age before she married Ray. The friend says she’s still not sure if Ray knows his wife’s real age.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first novel which introduced his detective, Philip Marlowe, to the world

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John Houseman
John Houseman
Well known actor and film producer

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We sit down and Pearl explains with sudden brightness that they have a new cook: since buying this place a few months back they have had several cooks, but none of them has been clean enough. Hygiene would appear to be more desirable in their cook than culinary skills: the meat, when it arrives, is so tough it is barely edible. As we chew away, I recall the story that John Houseman told me yesterday, and wonder if I have found the right Raymond Chandler.

Houseman produced The Blue Dahlia, which has just been released to good reviews, and for which Chandler did the screenplay. The two men got on well together, partly because both had been to minor English public schools. Alan Ladd, the film’s star, was about to be drafted into the army, so there was a lot of pressure on everyone involved. Shooting began before the script was finished, and gradually caught up with it. Chandler was having trouble with the ending, and came into Houseman’s office one morning and said he could not finish the film.

Then, says Houseman: “After some prefatory remarks about our common background he made the following astonishing proposal. Alcohol gave him an energy and self-assurance that he could achieve in no other way. Ray assured me of his complete confidence in his ability to finish the screenplay at home—[drunk].” Chandler then produced a list of the help he wanted from the studio, typed neatly on a yellow half-foolscap sheet of paper. Houseman thought about it for a while and agreed.

The two men went out to lunch immediately and Chandler consumed three double martinis and three double stingers. Two weeks later, with the help of two limousines, six secretaries, daily vitamin injections and lots of bourbon, the screenplay was finished.

“It took him almost a month to recover,” Houseman recalls. “When I came to see him during his convalescence he would extend a white and trembling hand, and acknowledge my gratitude with the modest smile of a gravely wounded hero who had shown courage far beyond the call of duty.”

The Blue Dahlia Film Poster
The Blue Dahlia
The Blue Dahlia, directed by George Marshall, was based upon the first original screenplay Raymond Chandler wrote. Completing the movie would send Chandler into a drinking binge to cope with the pressure

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Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Farewell, My Lovely
Chandler’s second novel featuring his detective, Philip Marlowe

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I want to emphasise the strangeness of Chandler because his books are strange too, far more so than most of their many fans seem to recognize. These days critics and fine writers, such as W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, get excited about The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and their successors, which are full of dialogue, description and observations almost never before found in books of their kind. The combination of the mystery novel and a certain element of poetry is undoubtable new and entertaining. But there are a lot of flaws in the books, it seems to me – they are really strings of pieces of clever writing where the plot, and even the characterization, doesn’t bear too much examination. There is also quite a bit of nastiness – Chandler doesn’t seem to like homosexuals, or Negroes, or rich women. And then – we shall dwell on this later – there is the strange Philip Marlowe, more a voice than a character.

All this makes the creator of these strange concoctions of particular interest. With most writers it’s not hard to see the links between their character and life, and their work. I failed to do this with Chandler, except to establish that both are very weird. Here are a few observations.

Over lunch we chat in a desultory manner about Chandler’s childhood; he has come a long way. Born in Chicago in 1888, he was the son of an alcoholic father who ran off before he was seven. Ray was taken by his mother to be supported by rich but mean relatives and schooled in England. Later, living in London, he spent almost five years trying to become an Edwardian poet. His early work was sentimental – but then, so are the Philip Marlowe books, in their way. He says those years in London were “the age of taste, to which I once belonged. I could so easily have become everything our world has no use for.”

In 1912 he returned to America and became a bookkeeper, before seeing action on the Western Front in the Canadian army. He was promoted to acting sergeant before joining the Royal Air Force just before the war ended, after which he returned to America, his mother following.

Chandler became an executive in an oil company but started to drink heavily and have office affairs. His emotional problems led to absenteeism and threats to commit suicide. He was fired in 1932 and decided to join the ranks of America’s 1,000 pulp writers. The popular mystery story magazine Black Mask accepted his first effort.

The drunken oil executive, and the writer described by John Houseman from earlier this year, are unrecognizable now. It is a strangely formal meal for lunch in California, yet there is no alcohol. Afterwards, Pearl retires to her bedroom and Chandler and I sit down to talk.

Chandler’s admirers rightly applaud the wit and style in his work, but perhaps its strongest feature is the fact that while he seems to be writing about one sort of man, the knight in shining armour, Philip Marlowe is a more complex character. For such a bruiser, he is a strangely pernickety fellow, with his attention to domestic and sartorial detail. In his descriptions of women the stylist dominates the man. There is lots about clothes, and the details of hairstyles, and relatively little about bodies and their immediate effect on Marlowe.

Tha Black Mask Magazine
Black Mask Magazine
Black Mask Magazine gave Raymond Chandler his first taste of success as a writer in 1933 with the publication of his short story, ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’

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Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
Humphrey Bogart was not the first actor to play Philip Marlowe, but he is now best associated with the role. While Chandler was happy with Dick Powell’s portrayal of the character in the 1944 adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, he preferred Bogart as Marlowe when The Big Sleep was released.

Consider, for example, the description in Farewell, My Lovely of the body of Mrs Grayle. She is apparently one of the most beautiful women Marlowe has ever met, yet even here his description is restrained. “Her hair was of the gold of old paintings . . . She had a full set of curves which nobody had been able to improve upon . . . Her hands were not small, but they had shape . . .” This is adequate but perfunctory. Mrs Grayle is the woman who, in one of Chandler’s most famous lines, would “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window”, but you’d never guess it from that physical description.

It’s possible that Chandler is being coy in such passages as a deliberate reaction against the salacious descriptions of women more common in pulp fiction. But he doesn’t hold back in some of his descriptions of men. Here for example is Red, a speedboat driver and minor character from the same book. “He had the eyes you never see, that you only read about. Violet eyes. Almost purple. Eyes like a girl, a lovely girl. His skin was as soft as silk. Lightly reddened, but it would never tan. It was too delicate . . . His hair was that shade of red that glints with gold. But except for the eyes he had a plain farmer face, with no stagy kind of handsomeness.”

Marlowe is a great chatterer, who almost takes delight in provoking big tough men, sometimes so they beat him up. Despite this, many of the murders he investigates turn out to have been committed by women. Mrs Grayle, for instance, bludgeons one man to death with a blackjack and kills two more with a gun.

It seems to me there is a lot more going on here – but I can’t say what. I have a friend who suggests Marlowe is homosexual, despite the disdain for such men in the books, but that doesn’t seem to me the obvious conclusion – although it’s true that his cute patter never leads anywhere with women.

The characteristic that does strike me most about Marlowe is his general solitariness – not only does his chosen profession encourage this, he appears to have no background, including no family. His social context is, to put it mildly, vague.

Marlowe has no friends, of either gender. This fits in with his generally wary attitude to other human beings, whether they be plutocrats or clients. Is this a cynicism born of experience, or is it something else? His enthusiasm for justice seems as much a way of keeping distance as a positive virtue. He is more an attitude, a voice – the books are in the first person – than a character. This focus on verbal style has its problems, but enables a certain freedom of action, and expression. The poetry slips free of earthly bounds.

The interview begins and I ask Chandler about Marlowe, but tangentially. Is he, I say, intended to be realistic?

Chandler looks at me as though I’m mad, but at least I’ve gained his attention.

“In real life a man of his type would no more be a private detective than he would be a university don,” he agrees. “Your private detective in real life is usually either an ex-policeman with a lot of hard practical experience and the brains of a turtle or else a shabby little hack who runs around trying to find out where people have moved to.”

Murder, My Sweet
Murder, My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk’s 1944 film Murder, My Sweet, was the first film adaptation of a Marlowe novel. It starred Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle.

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Philip Marlowe and Mrs Grayle
Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle in Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett is considered to be one of the best hard-boiled detective writers of this era. His first story was published in the magazine The Smart Set in 1922, but his first novel, Red Harvest, was serialised in four parts in Black Mask magazine from November 1927 to February 1928. His most famous work, The Maltese Falcon, began a five part serialisation in Black Mask magazine in December 1929, introducing the world to his own hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade.
Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood
Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood in the 1946 version of The Big Sleep by Howard Hawks. Marlowe is a loner in Chandler’s book but has an obvious attraction to Carmen’s sister, Vivian. Despite finding Carmen naked in his room, Marlowe rejects Carmen’s sexual advances.

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Then, abandoning Marlowe for the moment, he talks about Dashiell Hammett, whose books, such as The Maltese Falcon, opened the way for Chandler’s own work, with their realistic settings and use of American language. This approach was encouraged by Black Mask magazine.

Until then, he notes, “The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage-work. The denouement would justify everything.” However, “The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story was that the scene outranked the plot in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.”

Certainly this is true of his own work, which in my experience – and unlike most crime fiction – reveals new pleasures on rereading. But this is on account of the language, not the plots, which are often incomprehensible. Hence the famous story about director Howard Hawks, when filming The Big Sleep, cabling Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur, Chandler cabled back: NO IDEA. The point to the story is that it didn’t matter. As Chandler told me, it’s the scene that counts. And in his books, the scene can have strangely little connection to either character or plot.

This is not a criticism. It is, I suppose, a suggestion that he has created a new kind of book.

Trying to get back on track, I ask if he had a clear idea of Marlowe when he first invented him. Marlowe, he says, “is neither tarnished nor afraid . . . He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour.”

In terms of social context, I begin, and Chandler interrupts: “He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He is a lonely man – ” Why, I ask. Why does he have to be a lonely man? Chandler stares at me as though he doesn’t understand the question, or else finds it preposterous. I have the sense he might terminate the interview.

Take women, I begin again. There’s a lot of scenes in the books where Marlowe declines to have sex with women who are hungry for him. He seems to be attracted to them in the abstract, but not the actual. “I do not care much about his private life,” Chandler mutters, a strange admission from a novelist. Then, as though realising this and seeking to refine it, he adds, “He is neither a eunuch nor a satyr. I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin.” It’s a clumsy evasion of the question, and interesting that it takes us well away from American language and back to his Edwardian youth. “If he is a man of honour in one thing, he is that in all things.”

Chandler smiles for the first time since I arrived. Waving his pipe, he announces our interview is almost over. Cissy – his name for his wife – has a doctor coming at three. This is stated with utter seriousness, as though his wife’s medical timetable is the determinant of the household’s very existence.

I ask about the focus on corruption in the books; the question appears to interest him.

“Outside of two or three technical professions which require long years of preparation,” he declaims, “there is absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself, without accepting the cold, clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket.” I want to expostulate, to argue that while this is a bit true, it does not explain the world as comprehensively as he’s asserting. But I see he believes it passionately, necessarily. Possibly Chandler, like many an artist, is wise enough not to challenge the sources of his motivation.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon was Dashiell Hammett’s only novel featuring his detective Sam Spade. But like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade would also become an iconic hard-boiled detective of this era

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Anyway, this is an interview, not a debate. And we are running out of time.

He’s already told me he knew no writers when he started out, and I ask how he learned the trade. He says he used to be a journalist, in England, and that to be a writer you need to read, constantly. “A schoolmaster of mine long ago said, ‘You can only learn from the second-raters. The first-raters are out of range; you can’t see how they got their effects.’ There is a lot of truth in this.” After a pause he adds, “Any writer who cannot teach himself cannot be taught by others.”

“How do you do that?” I ask. “Teach yourself.”

“Analyze and imitate; no other school is necessary. Never take advice. Never show or discuss work in progress. Never answer a critic.”

It is an introvert’s guide to writing. In fact, I’ve never met an author who lived in such professional isolation. He seems at times actively to dislike other authors, possibly a hangover from his unsuccessful attempts to break into the London literary world. “The English may not be the best writers in the world,” he says at one point, discussing certain well-known mystery writers across the Atlantic, “but they are incomparably the best dull writers.” Later he murmurs that authors generally “live overstrained lives in which far too much humanity is sacrificed to far too little art.”

We talk about the fact he began writing late in life, and he offers: “In every generation there are incomplete writers, people who never seem to get much of themselves down on paper, men whose accomplishment seems always rather incidental. Often, but not always, they have begun too late and have an over-developed critical sense. I guess maybe I belong in there.”

BBC Interview of Chandler with Ian Fleming
Tape recorder
In 1958, Ian Fleming interviewed Raymond Chandler for the BBC in London. Chandler had reviewed Fleming’s Bond novels and was complimentary. The two writers became friendly. In this interview Chandler was a little intoxicated. But both authors speak of their own and each other’s characters, James Bond and Philip Marlowe, offering insights into their creative and imaginative lives, as well as the way they understood their own creations. The interview begins with Ian Fleming speaking first.
The interview is 24 minutes 27 seconds long.
Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson was an American writer, literary critic and journalist who wrote critically of the detective fiction genre. His praise of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely set it apart from most other 20th Century detective fiction, in his view, but his praise was still qualified

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It is an interesting admission, obviously something he wanted to get into the interview, as though it’s been playing on his mind. Does he mean by this, I ask tentatively, that he might try writing something other than the mystery novel? He says one way out of the dilemma could be to expand the boundaries of the genre even more than he has done.

I’m interested to learn more, but there is a knock on the front door, and Chandler jumps: I know immediately that the interview is over. He says goodbye, and I say thank you, confessing that I’ve wanted to meet ever since the esteemed critic Edmund Wilson praised him in the New Yorker last year. Chandler’s eyes light up with pleasure, and he shrugs beneath his tweed jacket.

“What greater prestige can a man like me have,” he says as we stand up, “than to have taken a cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing, and have made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about?”

The maid has answered the front door and I pass the doctor in the hallway, a large man accompanied by a nurse in uniform, carrying his black leather bag. He looks expensive.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler The High Window by Raymond Chandler The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler Playback by Raymond Chandler Trouble is My Business by Raymond Chandler

The Philip Marlowe novels in order. A coloured cover indicates a link to a review available on this website. We intend to add more Raymond Chandler reviews in the future.

Michael Duffy
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Billy Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest movie directors from the classic period of Hollywood. He won a total of seven Academy Awards for his films, including best picture wins for The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Apartment (1960), for which he also won Best Director, as well as a screenwriter for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Apartment. Other famous films in his oeuvre include Sabrina (1954), as well as The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like it Hot (1959) with Marilyn Munroe.

After Wilder read Raymond Chandler’s third Philip Marlowe novel, The High Window, he offered Chandler $750 a week for 10 weeks to help him write the screenplay for Double Indemnity. Wilder hired Chandler on the basis of the way he wrote dialogue. Chandler wasn’t thrilled about screenwriting, but he needed the money and his wife was sick.

This collaboration would be the only time Chandler and Wilder worked together. Chandler made a complaint against Wilder during the writing of the screenplay, citing his drinking, womanising and rudeness. Nevertheless, Wilder would receive his first nomination for Best Director for Double Indemnity, which helped to establish his reputation as a filmmaker.

Pearl Pascal was married to Julian Pascal and was the stepmother of Gordon Pascal, with whom Raymond Chandler had enlisted in the Canadian Army in August 1917. Chandler began an affair with Pearl after he returned from war.

‘Cissy’, Chandler’s name for Pearl, divorced her husband so she could marry Chandler, but Chandler’s mother disapproved of the match and refused to give them her blessing. As a result, Chandler resisted marrying Cissy while ever his mother was alive. His mother died in 1923 and Chandler married Cissy in February 1924.

Cissy was 18 years older than Chandler. There is speculation that she concealed her true age from him. Chandler remained devoted to her through her illness and was grief stricken when she died in 1954. He attempted suicide the following year and his return to alcohol ushered in his own decline.

This image of Raymond Chandler and Cissy is taken from a passport photograph and may be the only image of the two of them together.

John Houseman in his role as Professor Charles Kingsfield in The Paper Chase (1973)

John Houseman was an actor and film producer. He famously collaborated with Orson Wells on Citizen Kane as well as with Raymond Chandler on The Blue Dahlia. He also won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Professor Charles W. Kingsfield in the 1973 film The Paper Chase.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in a scene from George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946)

The Blue Dahlia was the first original screenplay that Raymond Chandler wrote. The script was accepted by Paramount Pictures and production was to start within three weeks. Paramount’s star, Alan Ladd, was likely to be redrafted back into the army and the studio wanted to produce a film with him prior to that.

However, as production started the studio objected to Chandler’s idea of making a serviceman the murderer and demanded a new ending. Chandler was still producing script as the movie was being shot, so there was pressure to come up with something quickly. The studio offered Chandler a $5000 incentive, which had the opposite effect than intended. Chandler was insulted by the implication that he would renege on his professional obligations. He threatened to quit.

John Houseman persuaded Chandler to stay with the production. Chandler responded that he would stay with the production if he was allowed to resume drinking.

Chandler was unhappy with the final ending of the movie and disparaged the performance of its leading lady, Veronica Lake. “The only times she's good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious,” he is reported to have said.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon, was first published in December 1929 in Black Mask magazine as a five part serialisation. The novel introduced readers to Hammett’s own hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade.

Dashiell Hammett, whose full name was Samuel Dashiell Hammett, gave his first name to his protagonist and may have based his character and stories upon experience he gained as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

The plot of The Maltese Falcon centres around the efforts of various criminals to acquire a valuable 16th century gold statuette of a falcon. It has been covered with black enamel to hide its true value.

During the case Spade proves himself to be fearless and pragmatic. Hammett’s narrative only reports what happens and what is said, not what characters think. Spade shows himself willing to engage in a relationship with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, one of a number of people after the falcon, but is just as willing to hand her over to the police without compunction.

Spade only appears in this one novel and four other short stories: ‘A Man Called Spade’ (July 1932, The American Magazine); ‘Too Many Have Lived’ (October 1932, The American Magazine); ‘They Can Only Hang You Once’ (November 1932, Colliers); and ‘A Knife Will Cut for Anybody’ (Unpublished in Hammett's lifetime — published in 2013).

The Maltese Falcon was originally adapted for film in 1931, only the year after its publication in book form by Alfred A. Knopf. But Marlowe's most famous screen appearance came ten years later when Humphrey Bogart portrayed the detective in John Huston’s 1941 movie adaptation. Bogart was later to also play Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Farewell, My Lovely was Chandler’s second novel featuring his detective, Philip Marlowe. The novel was initially completed in 1939 before Chandler destroyed the manuscript and began again. He constructed the novel by adapting three short stories he had previously written: ‘Try the Girl’, ‘Mandarin's Jade’, and ‘The Man Who Liked Dogs’.

In adapting the stories Chandler cared more about style and the tone of the writing rather than achieving a tight plot. Chandler said of his writing that “my whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn’t matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style.”

Farewell, My Lovely is considered one of the best detective stories of all time, as well as a quality novel that has credibility outside its genre.

Black Mask was a pulp fiction magazine originally published in 1920. It featured writers like Dashiell Hammett who contributed stories to the magazine, as well as his novel, The Maltese Falcon, which was serialised beginning September 1929.

Other contributors to the magazine included Erle Stanley Gardner, Cornell Woolrich, Paul Cain and Carroll John Daly.

Raymond Chandler was to be given his break as a writer when the magazine published his short story, ‘Blackmailers Don't Shoot’, in 1933. It was the first story he had submitted.

Sales of the magazine peaked in the 1930s, but it began its decline after that as interest waned due to the increasing popularity of radio and film. The magazine’s long decline ended in 1951 when it ceased production. The magazine title was revived in 1985 as The New Black Mask but it ceased trading in 1987 due to a legal case over the rights to the name.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall in a scene from Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first novel in which he introduced his detective, Philip Marlowe.

The plot of The Big Sleep is somewhat convoluted, although easier to follow in Chandler’s novel than in the film adaptation by Howard Hawks (1946) which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall. General Sternwood, his health declining, has two wayward daughters whom he can’t control. He has received blackmail demands based on the behaviour of his youngest daughter, Carmen, while his oldest daughter, Vivian, has married a bootlegger, Rusty Regan, who has now disappeared.

Marlowe’s investigations immerse him in the world of pornography and gambling in order to protect Sternwood’s daughters and the family’s reputation. Howard Hawks’ screenplay changed key aspects of the plot (including giving Vivian a new surname, thereby uncoupling her from Rusty Regan) and changed scenes to give a greater emphasis to the relationship between Marlowe and Vivian, played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall, who met in 1944 on the set of To Have and Have Not, and had married the year before The Big Sleep went into production. The age difference between Bogart and Becall was twenty five years. He was 44 when they met. She was 19.

The novel would also be adapted for film by Michael Winner in 1978, starring Robert Mitchum.

On October 6 1944 Edmund Wilson published an essay in The New Yorker, ‘Why do people read detective stories?’, and a second essay on January 20 of the following year titled, ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’, in response to critics who disagreed with his poor opinion of detective fiction.

According to Wilson, the nineteenth century was a high point for detective fiction, with practitioners like Edgar Allan Poe with his The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes stories (stories Wilson nevertheless said he was already outgrowing as a child). Since then, Wilson argued, the genre had become staid and formulaic. He did not care for Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy L. Sayers, and said of Dashiell Hammett that, “he lacked the ability to bring the story to imaginative life.” He felt the genre concentrated too much on the puzzle and revelation while abandoning characterisation and true human experience. However, Wilson was willing to praise Raymond Chandler – up to a point – for Farewell, My Lovely, of which he said “[it] is the only one of these books that I have read all of and read with enjoyment.” He went on to say, as a back-handed compliment:

What he writes is a novel of adventure which has less in common with Hammett than with Alfred Hitchcock and Graham Greene—the modern spy story which has substituted the jitters of the Gestapo and the G.P.U. for the luxury world of E. Phillips Oppenheim. It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms. To write such a novel successfully you must be able to invent character and incident and to generate atmosphere, and all this Mr. Chandler can do, though he is a long way below Graham Greene.

Added to that, even Chandler, according to Wilson, disappointed because the ending, “fails to justify the excitement produced by the elaborate build-up of picturesque and sinister happenings, and one cannot help feeling cheated.”

You can read both Wilson’s essays on detective fiction by clicking here.

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor in a scene from Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Murder, My Sweet, released by RKO Pictures in 1944, was the first movie to feature Raymond Chandler’s character, Philip Marlowe. The movie was based on Chandler’s second novel, Farewell, My Lovely. The movie was initially made with Chandler’s title, but it was changed because American audiences associated it too much with Dick Powell’s former roles in light comedies and musicals. Powell had been trying to break away from these kinds of films for years, believing he was getting too old for the roles. The studio was sceptical that he was right for the role of Philip Marlowe, so he was made to audition. Chandler was also sceptical, but was happy with his casting once he saw Powell’s performance.

Claire Trevor played the femme fatale, Helen Grayle, who has a penchant for violence in Chandler’s novel.

Murder, My Sweet was released five months after Double Indemnity, the film Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on as screenwriter. Murder, My Sweet was released in Britain under its original book title, Farewell, My Lovely.

Tom Rafferty as Carol Lundgren in The Big Sleep (1946)

Chandler is reported to have said he didn’t know who killed the Sternwood chauffeur, Owen Taylor. Taylor and his car end up in the water at the end of a pier. The mystery of Taylor’s murder remains unsolved and forgotten at the end of the film.

In Chandler's novel we learn that Owen Taylor murdered Geiger just before Marlowe entered Geiger’s house. He was in love with Carmen Sternwood and the murder is revenge for Geiger’s exploitative photos of Carmen, taken for his pornography ring.

However, Carol Lundgren, whom we learn is the homosexual lover of Geiger (made explicit in the book), sees Joe Brody moving Geiger’s pornographic stock from the back of his store the morning after his murder and assumes he is Geiger’s killer. This is Lundgren’s motivation for killing Brody.

In the movie certain references were required to be excised. Under the rules of the Production Code Administration introduced in Hollywood in 1934 (and strictly enforced) scenes of nudity and references to homosexuality were censored. Therefore scenes from the book in which Carmen Sternwood appears naked required her to be clothed in the movie, and Lundgren’s homosexual relationship with Geiger could not be made explicit, either.

It remains unclear who killed Taylor.

Philip Marlowe confronted by the flirtatious Carmen Sternwood the first time they meet

The nature of Marlowe’s sexuality is the subject of some speculation. The following are extracts from a scene in Chapter 24 of The Big Sleep in which Marlowe finds Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed upon arriving home:

‘You’re cute.’ She rolled her head a little, kittenishly. Then she took her left hand from under her head, and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right. She lay there on the bed in the lamplight, as naked and glistening as a pearl. The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night.

I pulled a shred of tobacco off the edge of my lower lip.

‘That’s nice,’ I said. ‘But I’ve already seen it all. Remember? I’m the guy that keeps finding you without clothes on.’

She giggled some more and covered herself up again. ‘Well, how did you get in?’ I asked her.

‘The manager let me in. I showed him your card. I’d stolen it from Vivian. I told him you told me to come here and wait for you. I was – I was mysterious.’ She glowed with delight.

‘Neat,’ I said. ‘Managers are like that. Now I know how you got in tell me how you’re going to go out.’

She giggled. ‘Not going – not for a long time . . . I like it here. You’re cute.’

‘Listen,’ I pointed my cigarette at her. ‘Don’t make me dress you again. I’m tired. I appreciate all you’re offering me. It’s just more than I could possibly take. Doghouse Riley never let a pal down that way. I’m your friend. I won’t let you down – in spite of yourself. You and I have to keep on being friends, and this isn’t the way to do it. Now will you dress like a nice little girl?’

As the scene progresses, Carmen calls Marlowe a “filthy name” out of frustration. Marlowe reflects upon her presence in his room after this:

I didn’t mind that. I didn’t mind what she called me, what anybody called me. But this was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that. Nothing. Such as they were they had all my memories.

I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer. What she called me only reminded me of that.