My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Carroll John Daly may have created the hard boiled detective genre and Dashiell Hammett may have popularized it, but my first foray into the genre was Raymond Chandler. The genre is defined by a PI that views the world with a cynical eye because of the power organized crime has seized thanks to the results of Prohibition. The PIs were the first antiheroes but Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective, is actually a man with a moral compass. While not above bending the law, he rarely breaks it. He’ll return money that he didn’t earn but he’ll also not turn in a criminal if he doesn’t agree that the criminal activity warrants arrest. He’s probably an alcoholic by today’s standards and is most definitely racist and a wee bit misogynist. And while it’s no excuse, his attitudes on these matters are par for the course for the time. He’s neither of these things by malicious intent but rather is ignorant that society is treating non-white straight males horribly. If this sounds like I’m warning you away, I’m not. I just want to prepare you for some shockingly uncomfortable lines.
Speaking of shocking lines, Mr. Chandler is a wizard with words. While the ignorance of the times is never far away, in my opinion, the masterful plot twists, marvelous stichomythia (witty one-liners hurled back and forth between antagonists), and magnificent turns of phrase more than make up for the moments of discomfort. Here’s a sampling:
Everybody’s here but the Pope’s tomcat and he’s expected.
I don’t know how it feels to be worth 100 million or so, but he didn’t look as if he was having any fun.
He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
My sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name.
He’s so tight his head squeaks when he takes his hat off.
I was a grain of sand on the desert of oblivion.
He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel
I don’t mind you ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
Most people go through life using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had.
I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars.
Then he sat down…on the far side of the scarred oak table that came out of the Ark. Noah bought it secondhand.
I could go on and on and on and…
This volume is also great because through the short stories that start the book, I could see Mr. Chandler’s skill being honed. It’s always awesome to see one of your favorite authors develop into the wordsmith he ends up being. Some of the short stories have entire scenes lifted and put into later novels. The character of Marlowe doesn’t officially appear in the short stories. The PIs have other names but you can see Chandler refining the character.
That character I prefer to Hammett’s Sam Spade, though I’ve read it said that Marlowe is just a poor man’s Spade. And perhaps I would feel that was so had I read Hammett before Chandler. But I didn’t. So for me, the paragon of the hard boiled detective is Philip Marlowe. This book is a fantastic study of that character. Next up is Volume II wherein the last 4 Marlowe novels, the screenplay for Double Indemnity (based on the book by the same name, the work of Chandler’s contemporary, James M. Cain) and some essays are featured. Can’t wait.