The Big Sleep (1939)
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Mystery (Private Detective/Hard-Boiled)
Philip Marlowe, private investigator, is summoned to the mansion of General Sternwood, an aging California oilman with two wild young daughters, Carmen and Vivian. The General explains to Marlowe that he is being blackmailed by a man named Geiger who claims that he is owed for gambling debts incurred by Carmen. Marlowe is to resolve the case as queitly as possible. Things get complicated when Marlowe finds Geiger dead soon after learning that he is a pornographer operating out of a "rare" bookstore in Hollywood. At the scene of the crime, Marlowe finds Carmen naked, drugged, and in front of a camera with the film missing. He hears someone leaving quickly, but fails to catch the culprit. Thus begins the first of Raymond Chandler's novels to feature his jaded, P.I. protagonist Philip Marlowe. The tale covers a lot of ground and introduces the reader to the seedier side of Depression-era southern California. Besides the blackmail plot, thereís also the matter of Vivianís husband Rusty Regan, who mysteriously disappeared about a month before. Through the course of the book, several subplots and new characters emerge, but they are all tied together into one large web of deceit and murder. No one in the book is without flaws. The police are easily bought, and Marlowe is really on his own throughout. The feel is very noir-ish both in setting (Los Angeles as a festering pool of corruption) and mood (action often takes place at night, and it rains a lot). Marlowe ends up digging deeper than the General wants him to, but when Marlowe takes on a case, he's not likely to stop his investigation until he gets to the bottom of the issue. SPOILER: Geiger is only a toady for a bigger fish, a man named Eddie Mars who owns a casino south of L.A. Marlowe's investigation leads him to Mars' henchmen, Canino, and a shakedown that reveals that Sternwood's real problems are is daughters--in particular, Carmen. A classic P.I. tale from the golden age of detective stories.
Geographical Location: Los Angeles, California, and nearby environs
Time Period: mid-1930s
Series: the first of the Philip Marlowe books
This is consider the classic hard-boiled private detective tales by which others are judged (or, at least, Chandler's Marlowe stories are). It is set in Los Angeles just prior to WWII, and Chandler touches on the gritty underbelly of that town, the sex, the gambling, and the skewed justice. The story is action-driven, and while the reader gets a good feel for Marlowe's values and personality, we learn nothing of his past--nor does it seem important. Secondary characters play are not necessarily 'stereotypical', but that do not receive the same attention as Marlowe in terms of their being fleshed-out. Rather, they serve as obstacles or aids in Marlowe's pursuit of the truth. The pace could not be considering quick, but this is a compelling read. Chandler's writing is fairly literary and chock-full of cant specific to the times. There are a few one-liners, but nothing on par with Spillane's work. Very gritty.
Read-alikes: Readers who enjoy The Big Sleep should consider reading Farewell, My Lovely, the next book in the Philip Marlowe series. This novel is also set in Los Angeles during roughly the same time period. In the novel, Marlowe is hired to find the missing girlfriend of a recently released convict. Reviews mention a similar lineup of undesirables including convicts, jewel thieves, and nightclub owners. Another mystery with a twisting and turning plot is Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. This novel features its own private detective, known simply as The Continental Op, who takes on a case to investigate a murder and to resolve a labor dispute and gang activity in the city of Personville. Hammett writes a number of stories featuring The Continental Op. Readers looking for a short novel with a compelling pace and complex plot similar to The Big Sleep might try Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. The story is about a wife in cahoots with an insurance man as she plots to murder her husband to collect double indemnity on the insurance claim. Another novel filled with a colorful cast of criminals and a gritty setting is I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane. The storyís protagonist is detective Mark Hammer who is trying to solve the murder case of a former friend. Those interested in hard-boiled stories specifically set in gritty Los Angeles, might enjoy The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. The book is based on the real unsolved murder of a young girl. Another book written in Chandlerís gritty, hard-boiled style is Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. The main character, Easy Rawlins, is a laid-off mechanic who has been hired to investigate the whereabouts of a woman. Although the book was written in 1990, Mosley's story takes place in Southern California during the late 1940s. If you like the Los Angeles setting, Robert Crais writer novels set there featuring P.I. Elvis Cole (start with Voodoo River). Also, Robert B. Parker wrote a novel featuring Marlowe entitled Perchance to Dream which is written as a sequel to The Big Sleep.
Red Flags: story elements include pornography, a very forward and flirtatious secondary character, and some violence.
Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Mystery (Hard Boiled/Private Detective)
Private Detective, Philip Marlowe, is literally dragged into a mystery when 'Moose' Malloy drags him into Florian's Bar searching for a woman named Velma. Unaware that the bar has changed hands while he was in jail, Malloy kills the new owner when he denies knowing Velma's location and threatens Malloy with a gun. Running away before he can be stopped, Malloy is on the lamb. Marlowe, lacking a paying case, begins to look into the whereabouts of Malloy's Velma in hope's of finding the location of Malloy. Shortly after beginning his search, Marlowe receives a paying case. Mr. Marriott hires Marlowe for protection in a ransom pay off, the kidnapped item being a rare and valuable jade knecklace. Things don't go as planned and the man that hired Marlowe is killed. Marlowe already being paid decides to look into the theft of the jewels and perhaps find Mr. Marriott's killer. SPOILERThe two cases, which in the beginning seem unrelated turn out to be anything but, the person person responsible for the death of Marlowe's client Mr. Marriott, is Malloy's Velma.
Geographical Setting: Los Angeles, CA and the surrounding area
Time Period: 1940
Series: Philip Marlowe, book 2
A classic of the hard boiled private detective mystery, the complexity of the case will keep readers engrossed in the story. The short chapters keep the story moving and are packed with just enough small details to bring the setting and characters to life.
An obvious choice would be more books in the Philip Marlowe series, going in order book 3 is the High Window. Another author of this classic era is Dashiell Hammett perhaps best known for the Maltese Falcon reader's should also try The Thin Man. for those who enjoyed "Farewell, My Lady" for the setting and gritty feel might also enjoy Ross Macdonald's The Drowning Pool featuring Lew Archer a private detective based in Los Angeles, CA. Angel in Black by Max Allan Collins features a private detective based in Chicago, based on the real life Black Dahlia crimes this book offers not only the gritty hard boiled private detective, but also a real life feel for those that also enjoy true crime. The Spenser series, by Robert B. Parker, are an updated Hard Boiled Private Detective series taking place in the 1990's, start with Early Autumn to get a feel for this series.
Red Flags: Written before the civil right's movement this book evokes some of the racial tensions present in the 1930's and 1940's. There is also violence, and sexual suggestions.
The Lady in the Lake (1943)
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Mystery (Detective/Hard-Boiled)
Private Detective Philip Marlowe is summoned to find the missing wife of Mr. Derace Kingsley, a wealthy perfume company magnate. Kingsley has received a telegram from El Paso saying that his wife has eloped with a man presumed to be her lover (Chris Lavery). Marlowe has a feeling that there's more to this case than that, and he drives up to the Kingleys' lakeside cabin in the mountains, where Mrs. Kingsley was last seen. There he meets Bill Chess, the alcoholic caretaker, and the two discover a woman's body in the lake. The "lady in the lake" is thought to be Bill's wife, Muriel, (who had disappeared the same day as Mrs. Kingsley) and the caretaker is arrested for his wife's murder. But Marlowe still has questions about who killed this woman, and he's still on the hunt for Kingsley's missing wife - he has a hunch that the disappearances of these two women are connected. SPOILER: Marlowe soon finds Chris Lavery murdered in his own home. As he continues investigating, he discovers that Muriel Chess had a secret past as the assistant and mistress to a crooked Dr. Almore. In the past, Dr. Almore's wife's murder was covered up by police detective Degarmo as a suicide, primarily because Muriel Chess committed the murder and Degarmo (Muriel's former husband) wanted to protect the ex-wife he still loves. Muriel then disappeared and assumed a new identity as Bill Chess's wife. When she thought she might be found again, she murdered Mrs. Kingsley, disguised the body in her own clothes to fake her own death, and then assumed Mrs. Kingsley's identity and attempted an escape. Marlowe gets Muriel to confess that it was she who killed Chris Lavery because Lavery had spotted her in disguise. In the midst of this confession, Marlowe is attacked and awakes to find Muriel Chess dead. Marlowe eventually discovers it was Degarmo that killed Muriel, gets him to confess, and Degarmo is shot by a sentry while trying to escape.
Geographical Setting: Los Angeles (surrounding areas)
Time Period: 1940s
Series: Philip Marlowe mysteries - #4
Fans of Chandler or other classic hard-boiled detective stories will love this book. The tale is told in compelling first-person narration, just like the rest of the Philip Marlowe mysteries. Readers of the series will certainly enjoy this fourth installment. The prose style is highly cinematic -- the reader really feels as though they are watching a film unfold as they turn the page. The mood of the book is very noire, taking place in southern California in the 1940s, which makes sense because Chandler helped create this gritty genre. The quick, witty dialogue between the characters is smart and entertaining -- readers will be charmed by Marlowe. While the plot itself is not fast-paced, the book is certainly a page-turner and can be a fast read. The chapters are often relatively short, and the crux of the plot (the mystery of what happened to Kingsley's wife) begins right in Chapter 2. This gripping tale of murder, money, and mistaken identity will appeal to any fans of classic detective mysteries.
You might also try any of the other Philip Marlowe books by Chandler (there are essentially 9 in all). The best to read first might be The Big Sleep, the first in the series, although The Long Good-Bye is often considered to be the best overall, and it was the winner of the 1955 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel. Dashiell Hammett is another excellent author of classic hard-boiled detective novels, and he and Chandler are often mentioned in the same breath. Hammett's The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man would be good selections. For more contemporary titles, try Michael Stone's The Low End of Nowhere: A Streeter Mystery, or Robert B. Parker's Early Autumn.
Red Flags: some sexism against women, light violence and nudity
The Long Goodbye (1953)
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Mystery (Private Detective/Hard-Boiled)
Private investigator Philip Marlowe is investigating the suspicious suicide of his friend Terry Lennox after the murder of Lennox's wife. He is constantly met with resistance along the way from a cast of characters introduced throughout the book. It seems everyone is out to get Marlowe- the cops rough him up, and mysterious gangster friends of Lennox that hide their true motives. Last but not least there is Harlan Potter, Sylvia Lennox's millionaire father. Not long after Marlowe begins his investigation he is approached by a New York publisher and the client's wife, Eileen Wade. They request his services in uncovering Mr. Wade's mysterious disappearances so that he can finish writing his book. Marlowe is reluctant, but soon becomes embroiled in their marital troubles and those of their social circle. As the body count rises, detective Marlowe comes closer to discovering the answer to his friend’s mysterious death. SPOILER: The connections between the cast of characters are revealed one by one, as Mrs. Wade's true motives and the circumstances surrounding Terry Lennox's supposed death soon become apparent.
Geographical Setting: Los Angeles, CA
Time Period: 1950s
Series: This is Chandler's sixth novel to feature private investigator Philip Marlowe.
This novel is written with short chapters and sections making the pace fast. Narrated from a single point of view, the characterization of Philip Marlowe is integral to the tone of the book. Marlowe is witty and sarcastic, which is a nice break from the weighty topics of deceit and murder. His narration creates an enjoyable read for those who appreciate dry humor. Framing and detailed descriptions of the setting (dark bars and dusty offices) give this book a gritty tone.
Read-alikes: If readers have not done so already they should check out The Big Sleep, Chandler's first novel featuring detective Philip Marlowe. This book introduces readers to Marlowe's enjoyably facetious narration and personal sense of justice.
Robert B. Parker's Hundered-Dollar Baby features Spenser, another hard-boiled detective that follows his own moral code. This compelling story is written with witty dialogue and the stories feature strong characters with a hard edge similar to Chandler's writing.
Fans of Chandler and Parker may want to read Poodle Springs, Chandler's final novel that was incomplete and later finished by Parker. The pace is measured, written from the detective's single point of view with frank and witty jargon. The most well known of Dashiell Hammett's novels, Maltese Falcon, features another private detective of similar character- Sam Spade. The writing features noir elements reminiscent of Chandler and familiar characters- crooked cops, gangsters and conniving women.
Finally, readers should look up Ross Macdonald's Black Money. His writing is similar to Chandler's in both tone and setting. It is fast paced and written with similar dry wit.
Red Flags: Frequent explicit violence, heavy drinking, some explicit sex.