Chandler is one of my favourite writers – top 5 at least, and pretty much everything he published is consistently readable. As such I don’t really have a favourite novel of his but if forced to choose it would probably be “The Big Sleep”. This is Chandler at his sublime best. Philip Marlowe, his iconic hard boiled detective, a loner, is the quintessential private eye, the model on which so many detectives down the ages have been based upon. We see the action through his detached, sardonic perspective, although even then many things we are left to work out for ourselves.
The principal attraction of these novels – “The Lady in the Lake”, “Farewell my Lovely”, “The Long Goodbye”, “The Little Sister” – all classics – is not the plotting, tight though this is, but the prose – Chandler had an ability to craft a phrase like few others. Take this opening from “The Big Sleep” for example, probably one of the best ever written:
The plot is extremely complex, not that it matters. Marlowe is employed by the ailing General Sternwood to investigate a small blackmail problem. In doing so Marlowe gets involved with pornographic book lending (which in today’s world is almost cute), gambling, boot-legging, gangsters, and several murders. The story flies along at such pace that you don’t actually spot the join – the book was originally two shorter stories, welded together to make the novel. This is done with such craftsmanship that you don’t notice unless you are looking for it – and even then it doesn’t matter a jot. (End of chapter 19 if you are interested – everything is tied up neatly at that point with only the missing persons investigation, which Marlowe isn’t really supposed to be conducting, outstanding).