’The Big Sleep’ and ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ by Raymond Chandler (published by Penguin Books)

Down dark streets with great one-liners

Here in this office, it’s a bit of puzzle why, of the 20 Crime and Espionage books published by Penguin last year, this Raymond Chandler volume is the only one to contain two novels, and full-length ones at that. The other 19 titles included two by Georges Simenon and two by Edogawa Rampo, all four fairly slim and more suitable for a two-in-one book. So why Chandler?
20. January 2024 6:14

The obvious answer is that “The Big Sleep” and “Farewell, My Lovely” have been released as a twofer before, and thus separate volumes now could be seen as poor value.  Not to mention that The Budapest Times bookshelves hold a Chandler omnibus called “Three Novels” from 1993 containing both of these books plus “The Long Good-bye”. Still, the many previous Simenon omnibuses didn’t prevent single titles by him in the Crime and Espionage series.

Those 20 re-releases date from the 1920s to 1970s and they must have been published several times over the succeeding years, so putting them out again in snazzy new covers last year does keep them alive, for young and old readers alike.

Raymond Chandler remains one of the greatest writers of hard-boiled detective fiction, and hardly needs a marketing boost. “The Big Sleep” was published in 1939 and “Farewell, My Lovely” in 1940. Then came “The High Window” (1942), “The Lady in the Lake” (1943), “The Little Sister” (1949) and “The Long Good-bye” (1953). These were his six main works.

A weak seventh effort, “Playback”, was expanded from a rejected screenplay and appeared in July 1958, nine months before his death. Chandler’s wife of 30 years had died in 1954, and in his final years he was lonely, tired and had health problems, including alcoholism.

Finally, there was “Poodle Springs”, for which he had written only four chapters before his demise in La Jolla, California, on March 26, 1959. It was completed by Robert B. Parker, another American fiction writer in the crime/mystery field. Parker added 37 chapters and it finally came out in 1989.

Chandler is particularly lauded as the creator of the private detective Philip Marlowe, a slightly disreputable occupation also variously known as a gumshoe, shamus, sherlock, private dick, private eye, sleuthhound, flatfoot and other imaginative descriptions in the slang of the species. Marlowe is the rather down-at-heel (“Twenty-five dollars a day and expenses”) but generally honest upholder of ideals in an often brutal and corrupt Los Angeles.

The author was born on July 23, 1888 in Chicago, Illinois. When he was 12 his family moved to England, where he attended Dulwich College. After studying in France and Germany he returned to London in 1907 and reluctantly joined the Civil Service. He left to write and worked for a number of newspapers as a reporter, essayist, book reviewer and writer of verse.

In 1912 he sailed to America and eventually settled in California. After service with the Canadian Army in World War One he went into business and became a top executive for an oil company. With the onset of the Depression in the early 1930s he returned to writing, producing short stories for pulp magazines such as “Black Mask”, where he first appeared in 1933. By 1938 he had published 16 stories and was writing his first novel, “The Big Sleep”.

Various collections of his short stories have been published, also his notebooks and letters, not to mention the peculiar “The Australian Love Letters of Raymond Chandler”, after Deirdre Gartrell, a 17-year-old girl in rural New South Wales, Australia, read of the 67-year-old’s lonely plight in 1956, his drinking, depression and failed suicide, his career on the skids. She wrote to him, detailing her vital statistics, prompting an intimate correspondence between the two.

One aspect of Chandler’s and Marlowe’s appeal may be the winning mix of hilarity and brutality. Sometimes it seems as if Chandler can’t write a line without a twist or a joke. A favourite of ours, remembered over all the years, is in “The Lady in the Lake” when Marlowe is having his usual verbal joust with some receptionist who doesn’t like the look or sound of him. This one is “a neat little blonde sat off in a far corner… behind a railing and well out of harm’s way”. Marlowe gets out a business card: “I put my plain card, the one without the tommy gun in the corner, and asked to see Mr Derace Kingsley.” Brilliant!

At the start of “The Big Sleep” Marlowe is visiting General Sternwood, who needs help because of his two troublesome daughters. Marlowe is “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”.

On the way in to the mansion, Marlowe encounters the younger sister, Carmen, who giggles and flops into his arms, forcing him to catch her and hold her close. The butler comes in and she jerks free and runs up the stairs like a deer. Sternwood turns out to be obviously dying, “approaching dissolution”. The general has been shown Carmen’s gambling debts, and says he hasn’t asked her about them because “If I did she would suck her thumb, and look coy”.

Marlowe replies: “I met her in the hall. She did that to me. Then she tried to sit in my lap.” This line was actually improved upon when Hollywood filmed “The Big Sleep” in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, now rated a film noir classic. Bogart says the lines and adds something like, “…Then she tried to sit in my lap. I was still standing up at the time”.

A famous true story is that when the film-makers realised they couldn’t work out who had killed the Sternwood chauffeur, they contacted Chandler to ask. After thinking about it for a while, he said he didn’t know either. It’s illustrative of the fact that his bloody plots may not have mattered so much as to who did what to whom, but rather the enjoyable writing was the essence. (By the by,  the BBC described “The Big Sleep” as “The most baffling film ever made”, The New York Times pronounced it “a web of utter bafflement” and Wikipedia says it’s “impossible to follow”.)

The witticisms, the Chandlerisms, remain in the six books: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” Or “I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Or “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

And “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” And “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” And In Marlowe’s world: “The streets were dark with something more than night.” And “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” And “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Chandler’s at his best the first time you read him, a big discovery in fact. We polished off those first six in quick smart time. But there’s still a lot of pleasure to be had in a second go, a few years down the track.

Leave a Reply