Review by Meghan Phillips
“This is not another biography of Raymond Chandler,” editor Barry Day asserts in the introduction to The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words (Vintage Books, 2015).
Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett, is considered one of the masters of the hardboiled detective novel and is certainly a subject worth writing about. Perhaps best known for novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, which feature the lone-wolf detective Philip Marlowe, Chandler was also a devoted husband, a veteran of the Great War, and a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
While I haven’t read the other Chandler biographies, it’s not difficult to believe the veracity of Day’s claim. This book is unlike any biography I’ve ever read.
Day chooses to tell the story of Chandler’s life and career, as the title suggests, in “his [Chandler’s] own words.” A writer who claimed he couldn’t compare himself to Agatha Christie or Rex Stout when it came to the intricacies of plotting a detective novel, Chandler had no qualms countering that “their words don’t get up and walk–mine do!” So it is Chandler’s words–excerpts from his novels and personal letters–with a little context and commentary from Day that make up this almost-autobiography.
Day brackets the book with chapters about Chandler’s early life (“A Man with No Home”) and his later life (“Envoi”). The editor is perhaps most present in these first and last chapters as he weaves facts about Chandler’s life (“Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, of an American father, who was a civil engineer, and an Anglo-Irish mother”) with quotes and photographs. These chapters give a glimpse of how Day’s piecemeal approach could create an in-depth picture of the writer. Here, Day builds a frame for the reader to understand Chandler’s quips and ideas, though this frame collapses once the reader delves into the meat of the book.
The majority of The World of Raymond Chandler consists of thematically structured chapters, each exploring a different aspect of Chandler’s work. The reader encounters chapters on Chandler’s best-known character, private eye Philip Marlowe; the city of Los Angeles; “Cops… And Crime”; Hollywood; and “Dames… The Little Sisters.” It’s in these chapters that Day’s conceit goes from clever to tedious. Most of these chapters are just lines (sometimes just one line) from Chandler’s novels and personal letters stacked one on top of the next. Aside from the theme of each chapter, there is little consistency in how the quotes are organized. What feels inventive in the first chapter becomes exhausting by the fifth.
In addition to chapters on his life and the themes of his work, there are two chapters on Chandler’s writing tactics, called “Writing (1) Turning Pulp into Gold” and “Writing (2) Making Magic.” The second chapter on writing is the worst offender for long lists of short quotes. For example, there are two and a half pages of Chandler’s most overwrought similes, most of them no more than a sentence of two, smack in the middle of it. I started to skim after about half a page.
Day’s research skills and enthusiasm for Chandler are on display in this book, but that does not make it an easy read. With its amalgam of quotes and photos, The World of Raymond Chandler reminded me of a fan Tumblr in book form. Though Chandler fans will definitely enjoy skimming through it, the structure of the book makes it too challenging to really get lost in Raymond Chandler’s world.
MeghanPhillips lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she works at a public library and a historical society, and reads fiction submissions for Third Point Press. You can find her on Twitter @mcarphil.