As part of my quest to immerse myself in the mystery genre, I’ve been asking what books to pick up. Chandler’s books came up frequently, so I started with his first and most famous. For reasons that become immediately apparent upon reading, this is a seminal work in modern detective stories, and Phillip Marlowe (Chandler’s recurring protagonist, though this is his first novel) is the quintessential gumshoe. He’s tough, clever, wisecracking, and suave (and he drinks a lot).
Marlow is hired by a dying billionaire to uncover a blackmailer. He ends up embroiled in a large plot with many players. This is a hardboiled detective novel through and through. It’s full of socialites with dirty laundry, lowlifes with secrets, gamblers, pornographers, racketeers, and murderers. But it also has much greater literary chops than I expected. While there’s plenty of now-cliche hyperbole (“She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmen’s lunch”), there’s also more eloquent writing found throughout. Lines like this:
Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn’t have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn’t change her expression or even move her lips.
The billionaire’s two wild daughters are at the heart of the blackmailing scheme. Eventually Marlow stumbles upon the younger daughter, drugged, naked, and posed for a camera. Beside the camera, a dead man. As he follows the case from clue to clue and suspect to suspect, Marlowe continually observes scenes with keen detail, giving the reader not just a visual, but a subtle sizing up of every person and place.
It’s not an overly literary book by any means, though. Roughly halfway through the book, the case seems pretty sewn up. But a few details nag at Marlowe, and acting on a hunch, he uncovers a whole ‘nother layer of plot. Here the book really kicks into hardboiled gear. I won’t spoil anything, but bodies pile up and Marlowe both deals out and receives plenty of pain. He keeps a cool head through it all though, eventually unravelling the mystery. Everything ties up in a very satisfying conclusion. I was caught a bit by surprise, but not due to any deus ex machina curveballs by Chandler. Just turns out Marlowe was a better detective than me.
This book is short and awesome. If you like mysteries and crime fiction at all–even if all you’ve read is Steig Larsson–and you haven’t already read The Big Sleep, go for it
Similar Reads:The Thin Man (Hammett), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.