If you are a crime fiction fan, then there will come a time when you no longer can ignore the giant shadow that looms over the genre in the form of Raymond Chandler. A shell-shocked alcoholic who decided he could write crime just as well as anyone else, Chandler turned to novels relatively late in life (he was fifty one when he wrote The Big Sleep). From there he made the jump to screenplays, including The Blue Dahlia (1946) and collaborating on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) while continuing to write his novels. He also continued to drink and eventually drank himself to death, dying in 1959 at the age of 71.
The Big Sleep (1939) is the first of his Phillip Marlowe series and stands as one of the greatest contemporary crime novels ever written and Marlowe himself as one of the ultimate characters of the genre. The famous opening paragraph is enough reason for both claims. It’s perfect.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
As a crime lover, I have become accustomed, perhaps even desensitized to, the world of DNA and detailed gore that belongs to the genre in its modern incarnation. When I pick up a crime novel, I need a lot to keep me satisfied. I need intrigue and forensics, mystery and murder, psychopathy and psychology, twisted protagonists and tortured perpetrators. Most, recently, bar Stieg Larssen’s trilogy, have failed to satisfy. My faith in the genre has been waning.
I read The Big Sleep just in time. It was a timely reminder of the cleverness required of crime writing, the light touch needed to twist the plot just when the time is right, and the character work necessary to justify out of the ordinary behaviour. Chandler has it all in spades. The bells and whistles of forensics are a long way away and mysteries are solved with whiskey, instinct and a whole lot of nous.
Phillip Marlowe, the original cynical, fearless private dick hero, is called upon by an ailing millionaire, General Sternwood, to track down a blackmailer who is allegedly owed gambling debts by one of Sternwood’s wild daughters. And so it begins. Pornography rackets, gambling, deception and seduction, The Big Sleep has all the ingredients and Chandler spoons out the twists and turns with bang on descriptions and spectacular inner monologue. The city of angels takes on a whole different colour of dirt and its occupants both a hedonism and darkness that creates the perfect backdrop for a perfectly murky, seedy tale where nothing is ever what it seems, particularly not when the wealthy and beautiful are involved.
Chandler plays with language and the reader is richly rewarded. He may well have kept a notebook in which to jot down metaphors as they came to him, they are so deftly scattered throughout the story. The humour is dark, the judgment silent but ever-present and the man at the centre of it all so utterly mysterious, thank God Chandler wrote a series.
Penguin Books, $9.95