Raymond Chandler and the Trauma of War
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is traditionally viewed as the image of a chivalric knight seeking justice and aiming to right the wrongs of a corrupt society. But what if we could change this established belief simply by reexamining one important and overlooked part of Chandler’s life? What if, instead of the brave but mythic Galahad of Arthurian legend, Marlowe could become someone much more authentic and flawed? How would that reassessment change our view of the detective and, more importantly, Chandler? My suggestion here is that this is certainly possible if we consider the effect of Chandler’s experiences during the First World War.
Very briefly, then, I’d like to outline how traumatic Chandler’s war experience would have been by drawing upon personal research into the conditions he faced on the French front line.
Despite being an American citizen, Chandler chose to enlist with the Canadian Army in August 1917 because, having spent his childhood in England, he preferred the British military uniform. Arriving on the French front line in March 1918, Chandler was immediately thrown into action: his battalion, the 7th Canadian Infantry, was suffering heavy bombardment and gas attacks at their reserve position at Loos. After being in France for fewer than four weeks, Chandler’s battalion was rotated into the front line in the area of Vimy Ridge, and in the Arras region of northern France on two further occasions, where some of the bloodiest battles of the war were taking place. That made three front line tours during the three short months Chandler was stationed in France.
If that wasn’t traumatic enough, when the battalion was not on the front line, the conditions in reserve weren’t much better. Located near Loos and Arras, the battalion was never more than 10 kilometers from the front line and never completely safe from bombardment. The 7th Battalion War Diaries, indicating their day-to-day activities, show that the battalion came under frequent attack from long-range enemy artillery fire and that, distressingly, more Canadian soldiers were actually killed in reserve than on the front line.
Unlike biographers’ claims that Chandler was injured on the front line and his platoon killed, there is no evidence of this in his military file. Instead, on 12th June 1918, Chandler transferred back to England and was seconded to the newly established Royal Air Force. Having left behind his comrades, if ever there was a trigger for survivor guilt, this would have been it. Chandler’s transfer occurred at precisely the time when the four Canadian divisions in France were reorganized in preparation for dispatch to Amiens and the final bloody push against the German line that would end the war.
It’s disappointing that Chandler’s biographers overlooked the significance of his war experience, skimming over this section of his life with imprecision and factual errors. What if many of Chandler’s personality traits, dismissed as mere eccentricities—alcoholism, fluctuating emotions, restlessness, depression, suicide attempts—were actually symptoms of something more sinister? Although it has been known by various names—nostalgia, shell shock, combat neurosis—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) fits with Chandler’s post-combat symptoms. From here, it isn’t a huge leap to suggest that some of those symptoms were projected onto his detective. After all, as Ross Macdonald claimed, “A novelist lives through his characters” (28).
Chandler’s war experience clearly scarred him and remained with him for the rest of his life. In 1957, just two years before he died, he declared, “Once you have led a platoon of men into direct machine gun fire nothing is ever the same again” (Bodleian). This statement was the only time he openly referred to his war experience. Chandler certainly would have absorbed the horror of his situation on the front line in France, and, like so many other soldiers, would have been inevitably tormented by what he experienced.
Chandler’s war experience forces a reconsideration of his motives for Marlowe’s creation and characterization. Was the detective intended to be a cathartic release for Chandler’s post-traumatic symptoms? After all, when we look closely, Marlowe certainly suffers the disillusionment that ties him to other writers of the era, most notably the Lost Generation. And when we look more broadly, we see just how many of Chandler’s secondary characters are veterans: General Sternwood, Bill Chess, “Mendy” Menendez, Randy Starr, Roger Wade, Terry Lennox. Even the characters of his Academy Award-nominated film The Blue Dahlia (1946), Johnny Morrison, George Copeland, and Buzz Wanchek (who is suffering from shell shock), are all veterans. Hank Bruton, the protagonist of Chandler’s short story “A Couple of Writers” (1951) is also characterized as a veteran. And the pièce de résistance is Chandler’s uncompleted short prose “Trench Raid” (1918), the only work in which Chandler attempted to recount his war experiences.
Referring to the pain of war, Ernest Hemingway once said that, “You have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously” (Meyers, 36). Considering Chandler’s work within the context of his hellish war experiences, a new and exciting direction for studies of the author emerges. Admitting in 1956 that, “I suppose Marlowe really is a sort of secret me… I can see quite a lot of me in him” (Winn, 4), the detective now becomes a semibiographical representation of his creator: a World War One veteran struggling to come to terms with what he witnessed in combat and struggling to find a place for himself in post-war American society.
The Bodleian Library, Oxford. “The Raymond Chandler Papers.” Department of Special
Collections and Western Manuscripts. Accessed May 2008.
Directorate of History and Heritage. “Active Service – Raymond Thornton Chandler. 1917-
1919.” Canadian Archives (photocopy). Correspondence. 6 March 2008.
—. “Confidential War Diary of 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade.” March – May 1918.
Collections Canada. Web.
Ross Macdonald, The Moving Target (New York: Warner, 1949)
Meyers, Jeffrey, Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999)
Nicholson, Colonel G.W.L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. published by
authority of the Honourable Douglas S. Harkness, P.C., G.M., M.P., Minister of National Defence, and printed by Roger Duhamel F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery: Ottawa, 1962.
Scudamore, Major T.V. A Short History of the 7th Battalion C.E.F. Vancouver, Canada:
Anderson & Odlum Ltd., 1930.
Merrick Winn, “A Confession By Raymond Chandler,” London Daily Express (14 January