Raymond Chandler: The Novels

Raymond Chandler: 1888 – 1959

If Dashiell Hammett was the godfather of classic American pulp fiction, then Raymond Chandler was his consigliere. He only wrote seven full-length novels (along with a not-inconsiderable number of short stories), but they have without a doubt stood the test of time and have to go down as some of the most important and highly regarded novels in all of crime fiction. Each of them revolves around the character of Philip Marlowe – the Los Angeles private detective working in the vein of Hammett’s Sam Spade and Continental Op – dealing with the dark underside of the American dream. From blackmailers to pornographers, from movie stars to gangsters, from widows to hoodlums, Marlowe dealt with them all in style, never without a smart remark or, failing that, either a bottle of liquor or loaded pistol.

More to come on this page in time, but here follows an overview of all the Marlowe novels.

  1. The Big Sleep – 1939

More detailed review can be found here.

The immortal classic that introduced Philip Marlowe to the world. The story follows Marlowe untangle a complex (and convoluted) case involving the blackmail of a retired millionaire and his two ravaging and thoroughly untrustworthy young daughters, it soon descends into an investigation involving murder and pornography, set against the backdrop of a corrupt, decaying Los Angeles. Dripping with quotable lines and unforgettable scenes, it is very much the archetypal Chandler novel and sets the benchmark against all that would follow it.

Major Adaptions:  The Big Sleep was first adapted for screen in 1946 by Howard Hawkes and starred Humphrey Bogart in a role that would come to define, backed with strong support by Lauren Bacall. A dark and powerful film which, although forced to downplay some of the more sordid aspects of the novel, still manages to capture the atmosphere and tension so prevalent throughout the book.

A paler version was made in 1978 starring a 60-year old Robert Mitchum as an older, more cynical Marlowe. The setting was changed to London, England, which robs the story of a key part of the setting which made it so powerful in the first place. It’s not a combination which particularly worked.

The BBC also made radio adaptions of the novel firstly in 1977, staring Ed Bishop and subsequently in 2011, Toby Stephens in the title role.

 

  1. Farewell, My Lovely – 1940

Chandler followed up his debut masterpiece with this equally strong story dealing with Marlowe’s pursuit for a missing singer at the behest of gangster ‘Moose’ Malloy. A routine missing person job leads to murder, dope-peddling psychotherapists, gambling boats and a short stay in a backstreet mental clinic. It’s probably the grittiest of Chandler’s works, and Marlowe suffers a seemingly constant onslaught of guns, blackjacks and punches. The story moves fast and leads to a powerful climactic scene. With just as many quotable lines as the book that came before it, Farewell, My Lovely is Chandler at his nastiest, most relentless best.

Major Adaptions: A 1944 film noir starring Dick Powell as Marlowe took some generous liberties with parts of the book, but retained the key premises and plot points, without losing any of the charm of the original story. The opening scene with Marlowe foot-dangling in his office on a dark, rainy night with ‘Moose’ Malloy’s face appearing as a reflection in the window is a classic, and Powell gives a friendly but firm portrayal of Marlowe. One worth adding to the ‘to-watch’ list.

A remake was made in 1975 starring Robert Mitchum (who subsequently replayed the role in a subsequent adaption of The Big Sleep) and is a surprisingly competent adaption, even if it again takes a number of liberties with the plot. Marlowe here is older and greyer than he was in the books, a point which he acknowledges himself throughout the movie, but it helps to add a level of world-weariness to the character which does the film well. Led by a simple but memorable jazz score, it does a god job of getting the ‘feel’ of the book right and even manages to add further to the plot’s dark undertones.

Radio adaptions again followed in 1977 and 2011.

 

  1. The High Window – 1943

Many will disagree with me here, but this is where I think the quality took a slight nose-dive. Marlowe is tasked with finding a missing family heirloom belonging to a rich, drunken widow, which leads Marlowe into a world of nightclub singers, counterfeiters and gangsters.  All the ingredients of a classic Marlowe novel are there, and the opening chapters between Marlowe and his client, Linda Murdoch, are great fun, but the rest of the story never quite seems to gel in the way you want them to.

Major Adaptions: No ‘major’ film adaptions to speak of, but a few minor movie versions did follow.

BBC radio adaptions followed in 1977 and 2011.

 

  1. The Lady in the Lake – 1944

Fortunately, the dip doesn’t last for long, and with The Lady in the Lake, we’re back on firm territory. Marlowe is charged with finding a businessman’s missing wife, which leads Marlowe out of the city and into a countryside resort before a drowned, decaying body shows up in the mountain lakes.

The story is tight, though it can be easy to confuse the many women involved, but the ending pays off and there is plenty of action and quips to tide you over until you get there.

Major Adaptions: An experimental adaption starring Robert Montgomery was released in 1948, with the filming being done in such a way to make the characters talk to the camera to suggest that the audience themselves are in Marlowe’s own shoes (think Peep Show but with detectives). It didn’t work out as planned, but they get points for trying…

Radio adaptions again followed in 1977 and 2011.

 

  1. The Little Sister – 1949

After a five-year gap where Chandler turned his talents to the big screen (famously co-scripting the legendary Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder), Marlowe returned disillusioned and depressed with the studio system. He turned this disillusionment into a story involving media starlets, blackmail and ice-pick murderers.

This one is a grower – the story isn’t quite as strong as some of the preceding books, but it has what is perhaps Chandler’s wittiest dialogue and the characters are developed in such a way that we can’t help share Marlowe’s frustration when the eponymous little sister comes a’ calling…

Major Adaptions:  As with The High Window, there are no ‘major’ film adaptions which have stood the test of time. One adaption starring James Garner was released in 1969, simply entitled ‘Marlowe’, but history has not been kind.

Radio adaptions again followed in 1977 and 2011. The 2011 adaption is perhaps by favourite of the lot – the casting, script and development mesh together well and helped me to add to my appreciation of the work.

 

  1. The Long Goodbye – 1953

Perhaps the jewel in Chandler’s crown, The Long Goodbye is a long, tortured work of loyalty, friendship and faith. Written at a time when Chandler’s own wife was in the throes of cancer, the story begins with Marlowe detailing his relationship with Terry Lennox – one of the few people who could constitute a ‘friend’ to Marlowe. After Terry shows up drink one night asking to be flown to Tijuana, Marlowe obliges him, before discovering Lennox’s wife was murdered. A suicide and confession note later, the matter appears to be over, to everyone’s satisfaction beside Marlowe’s.

The story then picks up with Marlowe being instructed to locate and guard Roger Wade, a drunk, washed-up writer (essentially seen as Chandler writing autobiographically) in order that he might finish writing his last book before his death.

The cases become inevitably entwined, and while it would be too much of a spoiler to go into detail here, the payoff is wonderful, even if it is a tortured process to get there. Marlowe’s character as a human being is explored in detail here, which helps to truly set him aside from other gumshoes roaming the pages of crime fiction.

It is by far the longest book Chandler put to paper, but perhaps the most rewarding. The Big Sleep gave us Marlowe as the detective – rough, tough and fast-talking, but The Long Goodbye gives us Marlowe the human – a man not willing to rest until justice, in his own mind, is done. It is a real cut above the rest.

Major Adaptions: A loose adaption was made in 1973 starring Elliott Gould as Marlowe. Rather than being set in the era the book was written, the film is set in the present day, with everything brought up-to-date except Marlowe himself. He is very much the same man as he would have been in 1953, meaning he is an outsider in a strange, strange world. Homoerotic gangsters and yoga-practising neighbours populate the film, but the underlying Marlowe-Lennox-Wade story is kept intact, up until the very ending and final revelation.  In terms of performances, it does the job well – Gould plays a perfectly competent Marlowe, but the ending does pull one rug out of the story and seems to miss the underlying message being put forward. But story differences aside, it remains an enjoyably adaption all the same.

BBC radio adaptions again followed in 1977 and 2011.

 

  1. Playback – 1958

Chandler’s final novel to be released in his lifetime – Playback is typically regarded as the weakest entry in the canon and a reflection of Chandler’s weakening health and mental state at the time of writing. It’s an understandable argument – Chandler passed away the following year.

But overall, I don’t rate Playback as negatively as others. It is the shortest novel in the canon, originally intended to form a film screenplay, and deals with Marlowe’s anonymous instructions to locate and tail a young girl on behalf of a client of whom he knows no more about that him being a ‘powerful’ man. As to be expected, nothing is as simple as it first appears, and Marlowe is forced to deal with hit-men, murderers and dodgy detectives in order to get to the bottom of the case.

It’s not the tightest plot in the world, nor the most compelling, but it is an enjoyable read all the same. Perhaps most criticism is levelled at the ending – where the one woman with whom Marlowe became seriously emotionally attached during the events of The Long Goodbye comes back to him, with the final chapter relaying Marlowe’s feelings and hopes for the future. It is the first book to give Marlowe what could be seen as a ‘happy’ ending. Now granted ‘happy’ endings are not exactly what you expect (or even want) to read in books of this sort. But when it is taken into account that this was to be Chandler’s final completed work, and the events that took place during The Long Goodbye, I think Chandler can be spared giving Marlowe a rare glimpse of happiness. Even a detective has to love…

Major Adaptions: No film adaptions to speak of.

The BBC failed to include this story in their 1977 radio adaptions with Ed Bishop, but re-instated it to the canon with their excellent 2011 versions.

 

  1. Poodle Springs – 1989

I have mixed feelings about posthumous novels. I’ve always felt them to be disrespectful towards an author – suggesting that their work and style can be easily imitated by another writer, without audiences being able to tell where one finished and one began.

There also seems to be a strong desire to draw a parallel between Chandler and Roger Wade – the drunken writer he wrote for The Long Goodbye, whose publishers are only concerned with keeping him alive long enough for him to finish writing his next book. Once he dies, they decide to get hold of the manuscript anyway…

Whatever Chandler’s thoughts on the topic, his publishers were happy enough with the first four completed chapters he drafted for Poodle Springs prior to his death that, in order to mark the centenary of his birth, they instructed fellow crime writer Robert B Parker to complete the story for him.

In places, it reads like a piece of fan-fiction, making subtle references to and quoting from previous Marlowe novels, but then perhaps that’s because fan-fiction is what this is. We know that Chandler finished the first four chapters, but we can never be sure how much of the rest was completed or planned. Whether Parker had to take liberties and make jumps in the plot of his own, he does manage to keep Chandler’s style flowing and produces a story which is reasonably fun and certainly bears the hallmarks of a Philip Marlowe story, even if the pornography/photographer aspect does seem recycled in places. It generally sits outside the main Chandler canon, but it is still a fun read, and introduces Marlowe in a way no-one expected him to be seen…a married man.

Major Adaptions: One TV film released in 1998 starring James Caan. As with Playback, the BBC included an adaption of this in their 2011 radio plays starring Toby Stephens.