The first time I laid eyes on a Raymond Chandler novel it was late at night in an old country house after my sister tried to poison me.
I was twenty-five and the whole family was back home in Cooperstown for Thanksgiving. The cozy Cape Cod in which I had grown up was overrun with toddling nieces and nephews so I was sleeping around the corner at my friend Nort's house, a beautiful 150-year-old Victorian mansion that, after we graduated, Norton's parents had converted into a stunning bed and breakfast.
Saturday night my sister Ann made lasagna and it was delicious enough that I had seconds and thirds. But she must have picked up some bad garlic at the Great American and around midnight I was sending it all back in one of the Overlook's spacious second-floor bathrooms.
After an hour or more of retching I finally returned to my room but I had the sweaty shakes and my stomach was still spinning around the uneven bars and there was no way I was going back to sleep. There was a shelf with a generous selection of old books and, surely seduced by the title, I picked up a musty hardcover of Chandler's first and most famous novel. I spent the next five or six hours until sunup transfixed and confused and awed and bewildered.
Now as even the most fervent Chandler admirer knows, his plots are a mess. If I spent the next few paragraphs telling you as plainly as I could what The Big Sleep is about (or The Long Goodbye) you would probably reread it six or seven times and then surrender with a chuckle. In fact, there's a famous story about the making of the movie The Big Sleep that I shared at a workshop Marcus and I taught at the Chicago Public Library. (I've heard several versions of the tale and don't know which one is true, but I told the most entertaining one and trust that Chandler scholars will now correct me in the comments.)
The movie starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and was directed by the great (Goshen, Indiana native) Howard Hawks and the screenplay was co-written by William Faulkner. During filming, Hawks realized that the screenplay never revealed who murdered General Sternwood's chauffeur and he asked Faulkner to fix that in the script. Faulkner went back to the book and couldn't figure it out so he cabled Chandler. Chandler replied angrily that it's all in the novel and Faulkner should just look it up and see. When Faulkner persisted, Chandler went back to the book and realized, to his shock, that he had just forgotten to resolve the storyline. With the book having gone through several printings, Hawks's question--Who killed Owen Taylor?--was now an unknowable mystery. In six years, no other reader or editor or critic had even noticed.
After I told that story one of the directors of the One Book, One Chicago Program approached with a grin. She told me the library had ordered hundreds of copies of The Long Goodbye in advance of the event. It turns out that due to a binding error one of the several editions sent to the CPL was missing more than thirty pages. Dozens of these inelegantly abridged books had been in circulation for weeks before anyone even noticed.
But the marvelous sting of Chandler's voice, like good whiskey on the nose, is the real reason to read him. He didn't just invent the modern detective novel, he reinvented the first-person narrator. He has been imitated so often that many of the writers influenced by Chandler have never even read him. In fact one of the pleasures of reading Chandler for the first time is how much of it seems familiar. Some sour critics have claimed this has dated the writer, that his style has been so thoroughly appropriated it's rendered his novels irrelevant. Retroactively hack. But to suggest that is to ignore the rhythm and snap of Chandler's prose. There are many authors I admire who have written terrific novels that contain not a single individual sentence that would knock you on your ass. Chandler often has two or three of those a page.
It doesn't include any of Chandler's famous one liners ("She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.") but here's perhaps my favorite passage from The Long Goodbye:
I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar--that's wonderful.
I have opened a lot of taverns in the last twenty years and I promise you no writer--certainly no Chandler imitator--has ever described five o'clock better than that. And if you're up with a bad-garlic fever and you're looking for someone to help you through a long night in an old house full of its own unknowable mysteries, Phillip Marlowe is the guy you want between covers.
If there are a few pages missing, or thirty, it won't even matter.