Raymond Chandler was born on July 23, 1888 in Chicago, Illinois. He is considered to be the most accomplished writer ever of “hard boiled” detective fiction, a genre he helped create.
Many of his admirers (who included T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh) would say that he was one of the greatest 20th century American writers, full stop.
Chandler came to fiction late in life. He didn’t start writing for the pulp magazines until he was in his mid-forties and his first novel, The Big Sleep, which introduced his iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, wasn’t published until Chandler was 51, in 1939.
Chandler wrote six more novels featuring the flawed and complex Marlowe, including Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953).
Chandler also published a dozen collections of short stories and wrote screenplays for Hollywood movies, twice being nominated for an Academy Award.
Chandler was an only child. His father, an alcoholic railroad conductor, left for good in 1895 when Chandler was seven. His mother, an Irish immigrant, promptly returned home with Chandler in tow. Later they moved to England where a relative arranged for Chandler to be privately educated at a prep school.
Chandler and his mother returned to America in 1912 when he was 24, and they settled in Los Angeles.
There, Chandler met a beautiful, glamorous, and slightly bohemian older woman named Cissy Pascal. She was then married to her second husband, Julian Pascal, a West Indian pianist.
Cissy and Chandler fell in love immediately and she left her husband for him. However, Chandler’s mother, whom he worshiped and with whom he still lived, disapproved.
They weren’t able to marry until a decade later, in 1924, after his mother’s death. Chandler was 35 and Cissy was 53, although Chandler didn’t know that since she knocked a decade off her age on the marriage license.
Chandler served in the First World War, enlisting with the Canadian Army since he was still a British subject. During one German barrage everyone in Chandler’s battalion group was killed except him.
When he returned from the war in 1919 he worked at various jobs before becoming an accountant with an oil company. He did well at the job and was often promoted, winding up as a company vice-president, but his alcoholism became a serious problem.
In 1932, when he was 44, he was finally fired, due to too many days absent from work because of his binge drinking, and for his scandalous affairs with young women in the office.
Unemployed at the height of the Great Depression, and with his marriage in peril, Chandler quit drinking and began submitting detective stories to pulp magazines to make ends meet.
After the success of The Big Sleep and his other books and movie work Chandler was finally on a solid financial footing, but it only served to feed his alcoholism which was again out of control.
He and Cissy’s 30 year marriage seems to have been a happy one despite his drinking and womanizing. He relied on her as heavily as he had relied on his mother before her. As Cissy aged and became plagued by illness Chandler began to realize that she was older than she had led him to believe, but he doted on her nonetheless.
When Cissy died after a long and painful illness in 1954, when she was 84, Chandler became despondent. He fell into a serious depression, attempted suicide, and spent the next five years drinking heavily until his own death in 1959 at the age of 71.