Dusted off my copy of this brilliantly-researched and very readable biography after re-reading “The Big Sleep”, Raymond Chandler’s 1939 debut novel published at the tender age of fifty. Today’s biographies often run to 6-800 pages or more, building on and arguing with earlier life histories, making ample use of the internet. In contrast, Frank MacShane’s artisanal 1976 bio has only 300 quite exciting pages, incl. several useful annexes. This is an authorized biography, meaning MacShane had full access to whatever RC left behind in writing, including letters written and received. He found unique documents, such as payment accounts from long-defunct pulp magazines from the 1930s showing RC’s dismal earnings as a budding writer after his failing as an oil executive. MacShane also spoke, wrote or phoned with anyone who knew Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) personally. For new readers this biography is a goldmine, explaining RC’s early years in the US, his move to the UK at the age of twelve and his English public school upbringing; his return to the US aged 23 and the impact of 18 months service in WW I on his world view. Throughout, his biographer provides addresses where RC lived in California (usually furnished rooms. Crucially, MacShane shows convincingly how RC viewed writing as self- fulfilment and how he failed time and again to find a voice of his own, even as a top contributor to “Black Mask” and similar mass publications he calls the 1930s forerunners of TV. He finally found his voice when he moved from stories (15-18.000 words) to hardboiled crime novels starring Philip Marlowe. MacShane’s historical portrayal of Los Angeles, its politics, corrupt police force, criminal elements and their corrupt (and racist) interaction are well summarized as a backdrop to Chandler’s novels, beginning with “The Big Sleep”. Much of the biography covers RCs novels, sources of inspiration and writing and working methods & techniques, his perfectionism and interaction with publishers and fellow crime writers and Hollywood screen writers. (RC carefully studied the works of Dashiell Hammett who also lived in LA, but they met only once.) Frank MacShane’s biography contains plenty of unique material and gives a piercing insight into a troubled man. Indispensable background to understand a shy, complicated and highly influential novelist.
This biography is well written and well researched. It obviously took a long time to put this biography together as MacShane goes into a lot of detail about Chandler's everyday life as well as his friends, work, relationships, behaviour. It's very much an all-rounder and covers all aspects of Chandler's life from his childhood in London to his lonely death in La Jolla, California. Well written, and draws the line nicely between being factual and sentimental.