Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2012
Frank MacShane prefaces the first full-length biography of Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) with a warning that he is “treating Raymond Chandler as a novelist and not simply as a detective-story writer.” If only it were that easy. The tension between genre fiction and self-consciously literary writing animated – and irritated – Chandler for his entire writing career. Though he did not publish his first novel until he was past fifty, that career spanned the possibilities for an American writer at midcentury, from literary fiction to mass market paperbacks, with the wild card of the movies thrown in.
At his peak, Chandler transcended the crime genre within which he honed and practiced his craft. He was praised by the literati, imitated widely by his crime writer peers, and avidly read by the general public – all before his most ambitious book, The Long Goodbye (1953), even appeared.
No one would have predicted such success for Raymond Chandler in the early years of his career. Though he was once a hot prospect, the sales of Chandler’s early books discouraged him and his publisher. His reversal of fortune says something about the enduring qualities of his writing, especially his great creation, the private investigator Philip Marlowe. But it also tells us a lot about the workings of the American literary marketplace at a dynamic historical moment, and about the genre with which Raymond Chandler will, for better and worse, always be identified. Chandler’s ups and downs are a story with its own sense of mystery. You could call it “the alchemy of a best seller.”