Raymond Chandler was 44 years old when he lost his job as an oil company executive in 1932. This is one job loss we can cheer for, since it’s the reason Chandler began writing. His very first short story was printed in Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine. Hard drinking, very fond of the ladies, and prone to depression, Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep was published in 1939 and introduced PI Philip Marlowe. Chandler would go on to write six more novels featuring Marlowe, ending with Playback, published in 1958. All but Playback were made into feature films. A fun fact: Philip Marlowe, and Hammett’s Sam Spade were both played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) and The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Chandler is considered one of the founding fathers of hardboiled detective fiction, along with Dashiell Hammet, James M Cain, and others, but don’t let that intimidate you. If you haven’t read any of his novels, no worries, I’ll get you started! If you’d like just a taste of Marlowe, try Trouble is My Business, which includes four shorter stories about the indomitable detective, originally published in pulp magazines in the 1930s. Murder, jewelry heists, and crooked politicians abound and it’s a good sampling of his work.
If you’d like something a little more extensive to start with, another great pick is Raymond Chandler: Collected Stories published by Everyman’s Library. Collected Stories actually contains all of his short fiction, along with his first Black Mask story, Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, and three stories you won’t find anywhere else: The Bronze Door, English Summer, and Professor Bingo’s Snuff. With this robust volume, you’ll get a very good idea of Chandler’s writing before deciding if you’d like to head into the deep waters of The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep is generally considered to be his best work: structurally solid, with distinctive style and sharpness, and well developed characters, not to mention a fascinating story! Blackmail is afoot, involving the daughter of an oil millionaire, and Marlowe is asked to investigate. During his investigation, he discovers that the blackmailer is running a pornography racket. When he finds the blackmailer shot to death and the millionaire’s daughter drugged at the scene, Marlowe realises he may be on to something much bigger than simple blackmail. The enjoyment of The Big Sleep comes in the world that Chandler creates and the people that populate it, not necessarily in the whodunit aspects, and it’s why Marlowe is one of the most famous detective creations to this day.
If you love biographies, and would like to know more about the author’s life, there are more than a few good accounts you could dive into. If your interest lies with his unconventional marriage with wife Cissy, you might try The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman. If you’d rather read something about the man himself, Raymond Chandler by Tom Hiney was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and details the author’s life using personal papers and correspondence. If you’re more interested on the inception of Philip Marlowe and his importance in literary history, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed by John Paul Athanasourelis might be more your cup of tea (or bourbon.)
If you’re a movie buff, and you haven’t already, don’t hesitate to catch the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep with Bogey and Bacall. It’s film noir at its best, and for me, it doesn’t get much better than Humphrey Bogart, so it’s win-win. Robert Mitchum wasn’t bad in the 1978 remake which brought the story into modern day, but for me the Bogart version is where it’s at. Movie or book, The Big Sleep is a classic of the 20th century, and not to be missed.