I’m back at mental_floss today with an article about the designing of the game Dominion, based on an email exchange I had with designer Donald X. Vaccarino.
“Do you drink, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Well, now that you mention it–”
“I don’t think I’d care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don’t even approve of tobacco.”
“Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?”
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe isn’t just hard-boiled – he’s dry, sarcastic, self-effacing, and mercurial, making him one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve found in any novel in any genre. Consigning Chander’s novels to the detective-fiction bin does him a great disservice, as his greatness is in his mastery of the language; not only is the prose itself readable and rich with metaphor, but it becomes the tool by which Chandler creates well-rounded characters through a handful of seemingly effortless lines.
I understand that The Big Sleep is considered Chandler’s best work, and it is phenomenal … but there’s little to no difference between that and Farewell, My Lovely, or the work I just finished over the weekend, The Little Sister. They’re all superb, all following the basic Chandler template of putting Marlowe in a situation where the line between solving the case and saving his life is blurry.
In The Little Sister the titular character – quoted above – shows up in Marlowe’s office, asking the gumshoe to help find her older brother, who has disappeared in Bay City not long after leaving his family in Manhattan, Kansas. Marlowe takes the case against his better judgment (S.O.P. for him), even though he believes the girl is holding back information. With a modest amount of investigating, Marlowe ends up in the middle of a blackmail scheme, a dope ring, and a lot of questionable identities – something Chandler creates in his usual economical way, with just a handful of new characters outside of a few corpses.
I picked the wrong time to read The Little Sister by starting it on day one of the winter meetings, which left me very little time to actually read the book until the meetings ended on Thursday – frustrating when it’s a book you never want to put down in the first place. I found it moved more quickly than The Big Sleep, but the plot was a little less complex – it was relatively easy to figure out what most of the characters were up to, and I say that as someone who almost never figures things out in books – so the question of which is the better book is one of personal taste. (It’s possible that The Big Sleep enjoys its status at the top of Chandler’s canon because of its film adaptation, directed by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe.) No matter where you start, though, if you haven’t given Chandler at least one shot, I can’t recommend his work highly enough.