Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Today I welcome Tom Williams, author of A Mysterious Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler (Chicago Review Press, September 2013).

Drawing on new interviews, previously unpublished letters, and archives on both sides of the Atlantic, Chandler biographer Tom Williams casts a new light on this most mysterious of writers. Troubled by loneliness and desertion from an early age, Chandler’s childhood was overshadowed by the collapse of his parents’ marriage, his father’s alcohol-fueled violence, and his abrupt move to class-bound England and back. Returning to dirty, crime-ridden Los Angeles in his twenties, eager to forge a new life, he met his one great love, Cissy Pascal, a married woman 18 years his senior. It was not until middle age that Chandler seriously turned to crime fiction, lifting it into the poetic and dark genre we know today. And his legacy—the lonely, ambiguous world of detective Philip Marlowe—endures, compelling generations of crime writers to follow him.


There aren’t that many deliveries I get excited about but the arrival a couple of weeks ago of Grand Theft Auto V was an exception. To be perfectly frank, I was as excited as a kid at Christmas about this game’s arrival. I’ve grown up with the series and watched the Rockstar games evolve into something quite magnificent. There aren’t that many gaming experience that can bring a lump to my throat but both Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire managed this with their blend of story telling and action. GTA IV kept me entertained for weeks and GTA V has, so far, not disappointed one bit.

What has this, then, to do with Raymond Chandler? It is a question you might well ask but I would argue that Rockstar and Chandler have more in common that you might first think. Above all they share one great inspiration: the city of Los Angeles. In GTA V, LA is reformed as Los Santos and Rockstar’s vision embraces swathes of Southern California. Chandler’s vision is narrower, slightly, but both at once attack the city and celebrate it simultaneously. It's a fine balancing act.

Chandler’s experience of the city of Angels is rooted in his life there. He arrived in LA in 1913, a year that was transformational for the city, not because the man who would later chronicle it arrived, but because water did. Up till this point, LA had only enough resources for around 100,000 people but with the opening of the Owens River aqueduct, it was made fit to be an international city and given copious access to resources that let it grow. People arrived in their droves, travelling from across the United States, drawn to LA with its Mediterranean climate and relaxed culture. Raymond Chandler was one of these people. He was a good man. The trouble was, some of the others who arrived were not and a few sharp operators, recognizing an opportunity to get rich quick, started to con their way around the city.

The scams that were run in LA from in the late teens and twenties were the stuff of legend. Oil was often involved though not always. It was where the money was after all. But there were other scams too, involving religion, medicine and the like. They often boiled down to the same thing though and that was the strong taking advantage of the weak. Chandler watched this unfold from the heart of LA, working in his offices at the Dabney Oil Syndicate in the Downtown district. He was even taken advantage of himself. Like so many other, rich and poor, he sank money into the Julian Petroleum Company. This company, which started off with some legitimacy, turned out to be a scam that affected hundreds of thousands of people. Shares were over sold and any profits paid out were only funded through further share sales. It was a big a con that, when it was eventually exposed, seemed to have impacted everyone in the city.

To Chandler scams like Julian Pete summed up the city. It was a place that was ruled by the rich and run by the crooks. The politicians were corrupt, the city officials were corrupt, and the police were corrupt. The system fed of the innocence of the naïve citizenry but with such endemic corruption they had no one to protect them. In the end, in his fiction, Philip Marlowe would fill this role and become the protector of the little man against the tidal wave of corruption.

It was this world though that help inspire Raymond Chandler to write. He was one of the first writers to recognize that LA was a city fit for art and when he came to write his novels he set about recreating it in some detail. On the one hand he was motivated by anger, wanting to attack a city that could itself be so corrupting. But, on the other hand, he recognized the life force operated in LA. He was inspired by the people that lived there and was energized by the spirit of the place. The city wasn’t always pretty but it was endlessly fascinating to Chandler and the source of continued inspiration.

In GTA V the writers of the story share Chandler’s fascination. They don’t like the qualities of LA that they attack in their bitter satire – the shallowness, the addiction to money and status --- but for all of LA’s flaws they recognize too that it has something magical and strange about it. Something that inspires art. In this they follow in footsteps of Raymond Chandler though I am not sure they will ever understand the city as intimately as he did. Why? In part because the pace of change is less dramatic now than it was for Chandler. But, also, because the writers of GTA V don’t share Chandler’s deep connection with the city. This is not a bad thing but it alters their view of it. Chandler spent so much of his life in LA and saw it grow from a small town to cosmopolitan, international city. He knew it in a way few could, intimately, and he describes it through out his work. LA is the other constant character (along with Marlowe) and without it Raymond Chandler may have grown into the exceptional novelist he did.

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