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Has any writer with less of an oeuvre influenced American culture more than Raymond Chandler? His first-rate work consists of a few novels—The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Long Goodbye, film scripts for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a famous essay or two (“The Simple Art of Murder”), and perhaps a few stories. And yet, for millions of people around the world who don’t read other detective fiction, he defined a genre (the hard-boiled detective story), a city (pre- and postwar Los Angeles), and a cinema style (film noir). Certainly no writer of similar influence has gone so long without a definitive biography. Tom Hiney’s Raymond Chandler: A Biography fills a major gap if not in American literature then certainly in American popular culture.

Hiney’s smooth-reading book is gloriously free of postmodernist cant. Chandler, of Anglo-Irish descent, was a bitterly lonely man, an alcoholic for most of his life. He had no close family after the death of his mother, and ended up hating Sundays and Christmas. He had almost no close friendships—one person he regarded highly was the humorist S.J. Perelman, whom Chandler knew through the mail but never met in person—and no genuine literary associations (unless you count Ian Fleming, whom Chandler befriended early in the former’s career). Chandler spent almost all his years after the age of 50 mourning the death of his much older wife, Cissy, and trying to figure out how a writer of detective stories virtually unknown in the U.S. ended up being lionized by British writers such as W.H. Auden, J.B. Priestley, and Evelyn Waugh, who labeled him “the best writer in America.”

As influential as Chandler was here, he was far more popular in Britain, a mystery Philip Marlowe never solved. In England, he wrote a friend, “I am an author. In the U.S.A., I’m just a mystery writer.” He wasn’t even that until his Academy Award-nominated script for Double Indemnity and the enormous success of Howard Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep helped revive interest in his books, all of which were out of print by 1946. (Amazing as it now seems, The Big Sleep got only four reviews when it was published in 1939.) It was word of mouth that revived Chandler’s career—really, that gave him a career. He was past 50 before he became a best-selling author.

Hiney’s achievement, in an era of deconstructionist word games and psychobabble analysis, is to write an old-fashioned literary biography—with some new-fashioned insights. Chandler, it turns out, didn’t hate Los Angeles as much as we’ve always been told; he actually liked the “energy and rudeness” of the city, at least until the Depression flattened it out. And the thinking man’s mystery writer was something of an anti-intellectual (“Thinking in terms of ideas destroys the ability to think in terms of emotions and sensations,” he said—a feeling that helps explain why Chandler never really moved beyond pulp fiction).

Hiney, relentless as Marlowe, riffs through the myths about Chandler’s life, many of them created by Chandler himself, and creates a vivid portrait of a man about whom an acquaintance once said that meeting him was like “landing at an interesting place but finding it wrapped in fog.” Hiney has also accomplished the more difficult task of appreciating Chandler’s accomplishments without overrating them. “Since the 1940s,” he writes, “so many crime writers…have emulated Chandler’s style that Marlowe has been something of a cliché outside his original stories. Within them, he has lost almost nothing at all.” CP