Today I’m going to talk a little about a much cooler Philip than I — Philip Marlowe. I think I fell in love with Raymond Chandler’s work the moment I read this line:
Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.
— The Big Sleep (1939)
My partner Kateri has introduced me to a lot of great things, but I think the detective novels of Raymond Chandler might be my favourite. She got me started with The Big Sleep, and I’ve gone to read a bunch more since then. I’m very conscious that there’s a limited supply, so I’m rationing myself.
The crime reading group at work have just chosen The Big Sleep as their novel for August/September, so I’m joining them for a re-read.
I’m also reading it aloud to Kateri when we get together on Google Hangouts; we’ve found that reading to one another is something we really enjoy, and it gives me an excuse to “do all the voices” — my Marvin the Paranoid Android during The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was particularly notable, if I do say so myself.
I love the dry, weary humor of Marlowe, which is not so dissimilar to my own. I love the way he keeps a $5,000 bill in his safe throughout The Long Goodbye and only takes it out to look at, never going to far as to do anything with it. I love how he’s six-foot of streetwise muscle, and yet still somehow manages to get roughed up in every story. He works long and hard to close his case — sometimes without managing to tie up all the loose ends — and usually things end 300 pages later with Marlowe no better off than when he started, often worse. He’s an archetypical underdog, and I like him all the better for it. There’s no identifying with someone catches all the lucky breaks and gets everything tied up with a neat bow on top.
“The literary equivalent of a quick punch to the gut”
— Contemporary crime writer Paul Levine on Chandler.
As brilliant a character Marlowe is, it’s Chandler’s writing that really makes the novels. They’re tough, gritty, murderously violent, but he has such a brilliant turn of phrase. He’s funny and lyrical and comes up with such perfect similes; almost every other paragraph contains a line worth underlining (or tweeting). Not just Marlowe’s spoken dialogue (though that is frequently jaw-droppingly droll), but his narration and description of the scene. She’s not just a blonde, she’s “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window“.
Perfect. Pour me a whiskey and tell me more.
The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.
— Personal correspondence, 19 April 1951, published in Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962)