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:

“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 little 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.”
Doesn’t that make you want to stop and go and read the book itself? Go on, I won’t be offended. The dark little clocks are a great touch.

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).

If you haven’t read Chandler before you are in for a treat. This is as good a place to start as any – it’s his first Marlowe novel. In Philip Marlowe we have one of the great literary characters – as well realised and fully rounded as any I can think of. Some Christians exhort people to ask “What would Jesus would do?”. With all possible respect to these individuals, I often wonder whether “What would Marlowe do?” would offer better advice. That won’t mean too much if you haven’t read the books, so you know what to do now, don’t you?