• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)
The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)
He tried to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter (he co-wrote Double Indemnity, the classic Billy Wilder film noir), but he was too idiosyncratic to fit within the studio system. He wanted to concentrate on his novels, but writing was such a tortuous process for him—he went through draft after draft before he was satisfied—that he finished only seven. He was left utterly bereft by his wife’s death in 1954, following a long illness, and was almost alone in the world (they had no children and he was too prickly to make many friends). He drank himself to death five years later. But his great creation—Philip Marlowe, private eye—lives forever.
• Caryl Phillips (ed.), The Right Set (1999): This is an anthology of writing about tennis spanning the period from the invention of “lawn tennis” in the late 19th century to the modern era of glitzy superstars. The most interesting material is the unfamiliar story of the early days of the game, such as the first Wimbledon tournament held in 1877, just four years after Major Walter Clopton Wingfield had patented a “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Games of Tennis.” Only 22 “gentlemen” entered this first tournament, and the level of play was as low as the level of public interest. By the 1920′s, however, interest had soared.
It is fascinating to read about how much attention was given to an exhibition match played by Helen Wills of America and Suzanne Lenglen of France in 1926 on the French Riviera. Crowds overflowed the tiny grandstand, and reporters rushed off dispatches to vast readerships updating them on the score. Both competitors wore flowing white dresses.
That wasn’t the only anachronism. A couple of years later Helen Wills (she later became Helen Wills Moody), wrote a guide to tennis etiquette that included this concern: “If your opponent slips on his feet, are you to hit the ball easily, so that he will have a chance to return it? This is a difficult question to answer. . . . Of course, if the slips turns out to be a real accident, then the player would not care much what happened to his ball, because he would fear that his opponent was injured.” Of course.