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 Dec 19 - 25, 2013 

Book Review

Pulp Tweed

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler

Tom Williams
Chicago Review Press
hardcover
biography
$29.95

Raymond Chandler wrote some of the most sophisticated works of American crime fiction. From his beginnings as a Black Mask contributor to his internationally best-selling novel Farewell My Lovely, it’s Chandler's depictions of corruption, crime and hard-boiled existentialism that define the dark side of mid-20th-century Los Angeles in our collective consciousness.

Tom Williams' study of Chandler succeeds as a scholarly work of research, using Chandler's letters to illustrate, among other things, why Chandler began writing (for the money) or why he was so reviled by Hollywood Studio honchos (he was a demanding and near-perpetual drunk who as often as not would simply stop working and go home). A Mysterious Something in the Light also corrects certain legends that surround the idiosyncratic writer, some of which seem to have been crafted by Chandler himself. As Williams says, “During his lifetime many of his readers instinctively believed that Chandler was someone far tougher, much younger, and certainly less tweedy than Ray in fact was.” Chandler seemed to consider himself a bit of a Romeo—particularly after the death of his wife—and portrayed himself thusly in his letters and in person. Consider that Chandler lived with his mother nearly until her death near the beginning of his writing career—then spent the last ten years living with his mother and his wife, who had been his best friend's mother.

Williams' biography convincingly portrays Chandler the man as essentially a repressed, middle-class English school boy with upper-class pretensions. Chandler the writer is presented as a man of great imagination who could write exceptional dialogue (a big reason Hollywood was initially drawn to him), but who possessed unconventional methods. He never knew how his stories would end, preferring the torturous piecing together of scene after scene until the “right” ending inevitably presented itself. While Chandler aspired to write literature, his writing during his lifetime never escaped the world of the pulps.

Unlike previous Chandler biographies (and there are only three), A Mysterious Something in the Light doesn't rely on Chandler's hopeless alcoholism to define him. Though Williams necessarily chronicles Chandler's struggles with liquor, he also ferrets out the idiosyncrasies that so marked Chandler as an outsider in his world, be it as a husband, an Englishman, a celebrity or a Hollywood screenwriter.

 
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