Review: Raymond Chandler: A Biography, By Tom Hiney

(New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997) 310 pp.

"A prismatic view into the life of novelist Raymond Chandler. . . . No rough edges have been filed off for this revealing, well-written biography, and Hiney's fast-paced prose, punctuated with the voices who knew him well, often evoke edgy atmospherics and dark moods reminiscent of Chandler's own fiction."--Publishers Weekly

"Hiney's smooth reading biography is gloriously free of postmodernist cant. . . . Tom Hiney's achievement, in an era of deconstructionist word games and psychobabble, is to write an old-fashioned literary biography with old-fashioned insight."--Allen Barra

"Hiney is a savvy Chandler fan and an entertaining writer. He knows what Chandler fans want and shares it with a flair for supposition that seems ordained among British journalists. Chandler might snarl over Hiney's adulation and quibble over his judgments, but he would admire Hiney's feistiness. . . . Hiney is at his best in digging away at his source for rounding details and getting it down where it counts most. It his bad luck to collapse sometimes in banality . . . Hiney brings vital original research to Chandler's shiftless Depression years in Los Angeles and his idolatrous marriage to Cissy, who was old enough to be his mother." -- Neil Morgan, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Since its publication some six months ago, Tom Hiney's Raymond Chandler: A Biography has (for a book about a literary author) been widely reviewed. These notices have been, as a whole, strongly favorable. Such a response is understandable. Hiney is a skilled writer and, as the above excerpts from reviews indicate, his biography is swift-paced and stylistically-sharp. It's a good read.

And that's one of the biggest problems with the biography. It sounds authoritative and looks thoroughly-researched. Hiney's delivery (and his eye for the racy tidbit) makes his work seem to be the genuine article. Unfortunately, Hiney's methodology, research, and analysis are shoddy and somewhat deceptive. In the end, these failings destroy what should have been a major contribution to Chandler scholarship.

As the second biographer to take a crack at Chandler, Hiney was in an ideal position. The first full-length biography, Frank MacShane's Life of Raymond Chandler (1976), traced the outlines of Chandler's career, assessed his importance as a literary writer, and offered interpretations of his character and personal life. MacShane's book, however, has gaps and uncertainties, particularly when discussing Chandler's life before 1939, the year The Big Sleep was first published.

The fact that no Chandler letters from before 1937 have been found is largely responsible for the void of knowledge about his early life. But, MacShane did try to fill those gaps. He uncovered Chandler's war records and consulted Los Angeles city directories for information about Chandler's residences between 1912 and 1939. Perhaps most importantly, MacShane located and interviewed several people who knew Chandler during his early days in the oil industries (though these people were either the children of Chandler's friends or acquaintances who did not know Chandler very well). In total,though, the material about Chandler's life before he became a published novelist accounts for only sixty of the 306 pages in MacShane's biography, or less than one fifth of the book. For most authors this proportion would be adequate, but Chandler did not publish his first novel until he was fifty-one years old. Eighty percent of his life remains a dimly-lit mystery.

Tom Hiney, then, had a ripe opportunity for uncovering previously-unknown material, correcting flawed assumptions about Chandler's life, and providing valuable new interpretations about Chandler's work. Regretably, his biography accomplishes none of these things. Hiney's inability to uncover anything new about Chandler's first fifty years would be pardonable if he were upfront about his material's failings and compensated for it by effectively using the material he did have. Instead, Hiney employs a number of deceptive techniques to smooth over the gaps in his facts and create the impression that his biography is authoritative. This strategy is well-suited for faking one's way through a final exam, but for a work of literary scholarship it is inexcusable.

If Hiney's book had been subject to sharp scrutiny by reviewers and noted to be lacking, it would be sufficient to mention its inadequacies and move on. Because of the consistently high praise the biography has received, however, it is worthwhile to analyze some of the book's failings and identify several of Hiney's strategies for squeezing seemingly-authoritative biography out of little or no solid evidence:

1) The thinly-qualified supposition: This technique, which was also used too widely by Frank MacShane, requires constructions such as "there is no doubt" and "Chandler must have felt" to glaze over the fact that the statement is not supported by any direct, concrete evidence. The assumptions may be individually valid, but the technique becomes questionable when used too often: it builds too much interpretation on too few facts.  Some examples:

    "There is little doubt of the coldness felt and displayed towards Florence and her offspring on their return from Chicago, for divorce was no more a Quaker institution than it was a Victorian one." (10)

    "There is no doubt that the character of Philip Marlowe was fleshed out in these resolute, if friendless and moneyless, months in Californian boarding houses [before the First World War]." (37)

2) The unidentified supposition: Using "must have" and "there is no doubt" at least indicates to the reader that the author is making an educated guess. Far too often, however, Hiney makes extended suppositions based on little or no evidence and does not indicate to the reader that he is doing so.

    "The monotony of being an only child in Upper Norwood was being made worse by the fact that Chandler was not encouraged to bring friends back to his uncle's house. His strange and reclusive upbringing was in danger of making him feel odd. In both suburban South London and Quaker Waterford, Chandler was an anomaly--an American-sounding boy with a pretty Irish mother about whom people, including her own family, gossiped. He was a boy raised in what other boys imagined was the Wild West, but who was now reliant on the charity of severe Quaker relatives. If dawning self-consciousness was making other pre-pubescent boys of his age feel out of step with their surroundings, then for Chandler it was not a new sensation. In late Victorian England, he was without a clear social class, nationality, or male role model. Even at home, he and his mother were made to feel different."(11) The basic, verifiable details in this passage are correct. Chandler was an only child. He spent much of his youth in South London and Waterford. There was tension between his mother and her family. From these facts, however, Hiney is doing a lot of extrapolation about how Chandler felt as a boy, and his accounts gives no indication that it is mostly conjecture.

    "Nor, clearly, did Chandler feel in a position to announce himself immediately at the Lloyd's house in Los Angeles. Impeccably dressed throughout these early months in America, he considered himself a young gentleman rather than a case for further charity. Lacking, in any case, the professional expertise that would enable him to benefit from nepotism, Chandler decided to begin in San Francisco instead of Los Angeles." Here are the facts that we know (primarily from a Chandler's restrospective letters written in the 1950s):

      1) Chandler met Warren and Estelle Lloyd on the ship that took him to New York in 1912.

      2) Chandler spent some time in St. Louis and Nebraska before moving to San Francisco.

      3) Chandler later left San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles.

      4) After arriving in Los Angeles, Chandler became good friends with the Lloyds.

      5) Chandler recalled in a 1950 letter that he "arrived in California with a beautiful wardrobe, a public school acccent, no practical gifts for earning a living, and a contempt for the natives which, I am sorry to say, has in some measure persisted to this day" (MacShane, Selected Letters 236).

    We have no idea why Chandler decided to go to California, why he chose San Francisco over Los Angeles, whether he had kept in contact with the Lloyds, what he was thinking during this time. Hiney conjures up one possible explanation (based on the five facts above) for Chandler's actions, but it is no better than any of a number of other explanations. Hiney is merely guessing, but the tone of the passage sounds if he is working from solid recorded evidence.

    "By 1917, Chandler was twenty-eight years old and restless. The fortune he intended to make in America was evading him. He was earning only enough money to support himself and Florence, and he was not sufficiently motivated by his profession to seek promotion. He knew few people outside the Lloyd circle, which was itself beginning to bore him. He had neither a past nor a future that inspired him. He was an accountant living with his mother and restless for a change of scenery." (41, italics are mine) Everything in italics is rank conjecture. We have no evidence that Chandler came to America to make a fortune, no evidence of how he felt about his job, no evidence that the Lloyd circle constituted his only friends, no indication of how he felt about his situation in lfe. He was a twenty eight year old accountant who was living with his mother. That's all we know for sure. The rest is Hiney's unindicated supposition.

    These three examples are merely taken at random. Virtually every page of the chapters dealing with Chandler's pre-Marlowe years contains further instances of Hiney's unidentified guesswork..

3. Quoting from retrospective letters without indicating when they were written. Hiney frequently quotes passages from Chandler's letters that comment on his early life. Seldom does he ever indicate in they text that they are restrospective letters, and frequently he does not even cite the letters. Unless a reader happens to have a copy of MacShane's Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler at hand, he or she has no way of knowing when the quoted passages were written. For the record, no Chandler letter written before 1937 (when he was 49 years old) is known to exist. Most of the letters that contain childhood memories were written after World War II. The reminiscences of a man in his sixties are helpful, but they are no substitute for contemporary accounts. They can be quoted as evidence, but the year of their composition must be noted.

4. Quoting passsages from Chandler's fiction as evidence of his earlier experiences. Almost all writers incorporate autobiographical material into their work, but a passsage from a fictional story is not the same thing as a direct autobiographical statement, particularly for a writer working in a restrictive genre such as the detective story. These passages can be used as evidence of earlier experiences, but only with qualification.

    [After losing his job with Dabney Oil for drinking and absenteeism] Chandler was still in no mental condition to look for re-employment, but he was now detachedly aware of the effects drink had on him. The dawning of this sober self-consciousness about alcohol would be obvious in the books he was soon to begin to write:

      I went back to the office and sat in my swivel chair and tried to catch up on my foot-dangling. I was thinking about going out to lunch and that lunch was pretty flat and that it would probably be just as flat is I took a drink and that taking a drink alone this time of day wouldn't be any fun anyway. (70)

    The passage is spoken by Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, which was written seven years after Chandler lost his job. It mentions alcohol, but there is no logical way to use the passage (alone and without any other support) as evidence that Chandler was self-conscious about his drinking in 1932. Quite frankly, we have no idea how Chandler felt about alcohol in the early 1930s. We can only guess.

    He then found work at two banks in the city: the Anglo and National Paris Bank, and the Bank of British North America. It was the kind of sensible career move that his uncle had tried to force on him in London, but Chandler was growing averse to making sensible decisions:

      Common sense is the guy who tells you that you ought to have your brakes relined last week before you smashed a front end this week. Common sense is the Monday morning quarterback who could have won the ball game if he had been on the team. But he never is. He's high up in the stands with a flask on his hip. (46-47)

    The passage Hiney quotes is from Chandler's last novel, Playback. Not only is it delivered in a fictional story told by the tough-guy character of Philip Marlowe, but also it was written in the late 1950s--some thirty-five years after the point in Chandler's life that Hiney is trying to discuss. The fictional passage has little relevance, and absolutely no evidentiary value, to the decisions Chandler was making at age thirty.

    Fictional accounts can be useful when discussing how certain experiences affected a writer, but Hiney uses them--often deceptively--as a substitute for any real material about certain portions Chandler's life.

5. Substituting historical context for hard facts. A biographer certainly should provide as much historical context as possible for the events in his or her subject's life. And, in passages such as the ones describing the atmosphere of Dulwich College, Hiney gives valuable, pertinent information. Too often, however, he seems to use historical detail merely to fill pages that lack any solid material on Chandler. Some of the strangest examples involve Hiney's quoting from the works of other authors:

    Rather than living with his mother [as a young man in London], he clearly relished the rarified squalor and bohemian authenticity of renting a room near the British Museum. Central London was still a menacingly dirty place. With motor cars rare in 1910, horse drawn carriages were--together with trains--still the predominant means of transport. 'The muddy slime of the city streets' (as Chandler remembered it) [and Hiney does not cite when or where] was closer to the grime of Dickens's London than it was to later descriptions of the city by E. M. Forster or Evelyn Waugh. In fact, Chandler's time in London can be most accurately sensed in the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle. The fictional career of Sherlock Holmes spanned from 1887 to 1917 and captured a city that Chandler knew at first hand. 'London,' says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, 'that great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irrestiably drained.' Chandler read little of Doyle's work until much later on in his life, but he was instantly able to recognize the London of which Doyle wrote. (29)

    Leaving aside the issue of how Hiney knows that Chandler "clearly relished" his London squalor and how he knows Chandler's thoughts upon reading Doyle, does Holmes's bon mot really give a more accurate representation of pre-War London than, say, a simple historian's account or an extended descriptive passage from a work of fiction? The specific dates for Holmes's career are a nice touch, but they are little more than filler.

    "The boy Chandler was an exact contemporary of a fictional girl who lived in the neighboring state of Kansas, and who also lived with her uncle and aunt. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, would be published in 1899 and begins in the type of pre-modern setting that as a young child Chandler knew well:

      Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas praries, with uncle Henry, who was the farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles." (6)

    What does any of this have to do with Raymond Chandler?

To be fair, none of the above five "techniques" would be disasterous if used in a biography that otherwise consistently delivered fresh, accurate information. When used to cover up for a lack of hard facts about Chandler's pre-novelist life, however, the use of the above practices border on deceiving the reader. And, unfortunately, Hiney's biography does not improve much even when he does have hard evidence to work with.

Repeatedly throughout the biography, Hiney gets details wrong about Chandler's novels. Many of these errors are relatively minor. Farewell, My Lovely, for example, was published in October 1940, not May (p.117). In too many instances, though, Hiney simply misreads the stories themselves. Farewell, My Lovely admittedly has a confusing ending, but Hiney makes mistakes that would earn a college freshman a failing grade on a term paper. For example:

    Farewell, My Lovely begins with Marlowe being hired by a huge ex-con named 'Moose' Malloy, who has just come out of prison. Malloy wants the detective to find his old showgirl sweetheart, Velma, and not having had a job for weeks, the detective accepts.(115) Malloy never hires Marlowe. He merely grabs the detective by the neck and drags him into Florian's, where Malloy kills the bar owner. Marlowe agrees to help the incompetent Lt. Nulty capture Malloy, and he looks for Velma as a way of tracking down the murderous giant..

    Having heard that Marlowe was looking for 'Velma,' Marriot tricked him up to Purissima Canyon in order to have him shot. But by then Marriott's own cronies had caught up with his scam, and killed him instead for not cutting them in on the blackmail racket. (116) There is no blackmail racket, and there are no cronies that kill Marriott. Velma Valento/Mrs. Grayle kills Marriott in the canyon because he is getting to be a liability. The point is important, because Marlowe hypothesizes a complex jewelry heist mob that involves the Bay City police, Jules Amthor, and Laird Brunette. The various crimes in the book, however, are actually only coincidentally connected. There is no real "kingpin" to be snared, and Marlowe's learning of this shows his coming to understand the pervasion of corruption in modern Los Angeles.

    Marlowe recovers his senses by the end of the book, driven on by his hatred of the book's chief villain, an LA psychiatrist named Jules Amthor. (116) If there is a chief villain in the book, it certainly is not Jules Amthor, who is merely a phony psychic who uses payoffs and strongarm men to protect his racket. Both Moose Malloy, who commits two murders, and Laird Brunette, the gangster who is rumored to control all of Bay City, could be argued to be "chief villains," but the real focus of evil in the book is Velma Valento/Mrs. Grayle. Her attempts to remake herself, cut off the past, use men, and murderously protect her new-found wealth and social position are at the root of all the crimes in the novel.

Hiney's errors are not limited to his discussion of Farewell, My Lovely. In The Lady in the Lake, Degarmo does not kill himself (Hiney 131); he is shot by a military sentry while trying to escape. In The Little Sister, Marlowe does not approach Mavis Weld 's agent for money (Hiney 188); he goes to the agent because Mavis refuses to let Marlowe help her (for free). Orrin Quest is not killed by Steelgrave (Hiney 188); he is killed by Dolores Gonzales. In The Long Good-bye, Marlowe is not "re-hired by [Eileen] Wade to act as her husband's minder" (Hiney 207); he refuses such a job but ends up hanging around the Wades out of an ambiguous sense of duty and curiosity. The Wades' houseboy is not Guatemalan (Hiney 208); he is Chilean, a point that Candy makes a big deal about. In Playback, it is not true that "the reader does not know whether [Eleanor] King actually killed her husband or not" (253); it is quite clear that she is innocent. The whole concept of "playback" revolves around that fact. Hiney claims that, "rather than agreeing to a payoff, Brandon had thrown Mitchell off the top floor of his hotel" (255). Mitchell is blackmailing Eleanor King/Betty Mayfield, not Brandon, and Mitchell fell accidentally to his death; Brandon just helped cover it up to avoid scandal at his hotel.

These factual errors are not just careless mistakes (as mispelling a character's name might be). Each of them has a direct impact on the interpretation of the characters and events in Chandler's novels. If Hiney gets so many important details wrong about the books, how can we possibly trust his interpretations of them? And, if he can't even get the details of the novels right, how can we possibly trust his research and interpretation of Chandler's life? [Hiney's biography, in fact, is filled with factual errors and obvious misreadings of the evidence (letters, articles, interviews) of Chandler's life, though they are unlikely to be caught by someone who has not done much research into Chandler's life.]

Factual errors and flawed interpretations are bad enough in their own right. Unfortunately, Hiney's biography goes a step further. In the midst of his inaccurate representation, he slants his misreading of Chandler to emphasize the seedy, sensational elements of Chandler's life: the drinking, the womanizing, the loneliness, despair. There's no need to whitewash Chandler: he was an alcoholic, he was loney and bitter, and he did have a stilted relationship with the women in his life. But, Hiney focuses far too closely on such elements and, using very questionable methodology, paints a tawdry version of Chandler that is unsupported by facts.

Alcohol was certainly an important element of both Chandler's life and his writing, but Hiney latches as if it were the key element. And, to make it worse, Hiney seems willing to bend and stretch whatever thin evidence is available and make it comment on Chandler's alcoholism. In discussing Chandler's visit to his aunt and uncle in Nebraska in 1912, Hiney states, "Though Chandler was not a heavy drinker at this time, his brief stay with the Fitts does include an ominous account of the homemade way in which the Fitt males were managing to beat Prohibition" (35). He then quotes a paragraph from a Chandler letter that recalls the awful liquor the family bought from bootleggers. Then passage is hardly "ominous," being the type of account you might expect from anyone who lived through Prohibition, and is certainly no indication that Chandler had alcoholic tendencies as a young man.Similarly, in discussing The High Window, Hiney makes illogical inferences about Chandler's feelings about alcohol: "A description of one minor character would also suggest that now, in 1942, Chandler was once more starting to yearn for drink, after having been 'dry' for so long."(128) The passage Hiney quotes describes Lt.-Det. Breeze picking up a glass and enjoying the drink. An interesting passage, but at best flimsy evidence that Chandler wanted to fall off the wagon.

Perhaps the most egregious example of Hiney's distortions occurs in his discussion of Chandler's father Maurice, about whom next to nothing is known. The lack of facts, though, does not deter Hiney, who does his best to emphasize Maurice Chandler's alcoholism and, thereby, Raymond Chandler's genetic predilection to drink:

      It was not optimism that infected the house rented by Maurice Chandler. The itinerant nature of his job meant that mother and infant were soon spending most of their time alone. Maurice had become a hard drinker and was, according to his son, 'found drunk if he was found at all.' Alcoholism among contractural workers was a familiar problem in industrializing America. It was as a reaction against the growth of mass male alcoholism that the American Temperance Movement came into force. In 1880, the year Maurice Chandler had left Pennsylvania, the Temperance-backed Prohibition Party fought its first presidential election.

      The marriage very quickly disintegrated. Even when he was home, Maurice was drinking agressively. The atmosphere became bitter and the couple had no more children. It was precisely the kind of marriage which, by the 1890s, was prompting an alliance between the Prohibition campaign and the Women's sufferage movement in America. Though there is no indication Florence Chandler participated in any of the several rallies, petitions and campaigns in Chicago at this time, she would have known that she was not the only 'drink widow' in Chicago. (4)

Nothing that Hiney says about Maurice's drinking and marriage in these paragraphs has any grounding in fact. They are rank conjecture. The quote from Chandler in the first paragraphs gives the impression that Hiney has some evidence for these statements. But, Chandler never said that his father was 'found drunk if he was found at all.' The quotation is from the screen notes to The Blue Dahlia and is describing a character named Buzz. The historical information in the paragraphs--including the meaningless coincidence that the American Temperance Movement fought an election the same year Maurice Chandler left Pennsylvania--serves merely to obscure the fact that Hiney has no support for the statements he is making.

Hiney is determined to make Chandler a sensational figure, even to the point of creating what might be termed a biographical snowball: where a single, untrustworthy detail becomes the seed of a totally unsupportable characterization. Hiney uses just such a snowball in his portrayal of Cissy Chandler, Raymond's wife. On page 47, while discussing Cissy's background, Hiney notes, that as a young woman she "had worked as a model while living in Harlem; rumour had it that she had been part of a high-life opium set while in New York. She once showed Chandler nude photographs of herself from her modelling days in New York." Hiney gives no documentation to indicate where he learned about the nude photographs, who was spreading rumors about Cissy's being a part of a high-life opium set, and how reliable that rumor might be. (And, for the record, being a part of a high-life opium set does not necessarily mean that Cissy was an opium addict.)

From this kernel the characterization snowballs. By page 100, the lone unsubstantiated rumor has become fact. In discussing the plot of The Big Sleep, Hiney writes, "Carmen, the younger [sister], is hooked on opium. Carmen has also been posing for nude photographs, negatives of which the gangsters are offering to return to the General for money." In a footnote, Hiney comments, "The parallels between Carmen Sternwood and Cissy's own laudanum and modeling days in New York are obvious." But, the parallels are not obvious. Not only is it unclear weather Cissy ever took opium but also there is no indication in the book that Carmen is a drug addict. She was drugged with laudanum by Arthur Gwynn Geiger and posed for nude photographs, but nothing in the novel suggests that she is a habitual, voluntary drug user. Hiney apparently is so focused on drugs that he misreads the text. He claims that "on one of her opium binges (before the start of the book) Carmen had shot Regan, who had refused to sleep with her" (101). This is patently wrong. Carmen does the shooting in an altered state, but Chandler describes it not as drug-induced but as "a mild epileptic fit." Diseased sexuality is Carmen's problem, not drug use.

Hiney is convinced of his interpretation, however, and by page 147 it is being used as the basis for further speculation, this time about Cissy's perception of her husband: "As an old woman with three husbands to her credit, and who in younger years had been an opium-taking nude model, it is possible that she forgave, overlooked, or was becoming too ill to care about Chandler's behaviour". What began as a rumor has now become fact, and is being used to spin off new, questionable inferences about Chandler's life.

I would not have bothered to go into such detail about the failings of Tom Hiney's biography if it had been more rigorously reviewed upon its initial publication. But, because of the overwhelmingly positive notices it has received--and because of the publisher's use of promotional blurbs such as "a rock solid job of setting the record state on Raymond Chandler"--a closer look was necessary. Hiney's book does turn up some new information on Chandler's career, but the repeated flaws undercut its value to the point where it cannot be trusted. Rather than being the long-awaited (by Chandler fans and scholars, at least) authoritative treatment of Chandler, Hiney's book must be considered an inferior effort to Frank MacShane's inadequate first biography.

R.M. 1997