Raymond Chandler Gives a Damn.

The Big Sleep (1939)

I thought I’d begin by writing about The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s journey into the depths of seedy LA. This of course a classic. There’s nothing more classical than Philip Marlowe: he serves as the model for our culture’s stereotypical hard-bitten, cynical private eye with a love of strong liquor and undying belief in the slap-across-the-face as the best wake up technique for women.

Has it aged? Yes.

Do some of the cultural assumptions of the time seep through the page? Yes?

Does the The Big Sleep’s central premise of pornography pics stuffed in books and used for blackmail seem, now, somewhat quaint? Yeah I guess.

So why read The Big Sleep?

Because it is one of the best, if not the best, detective book of all time. The dialogue zings off the page like a jazz solo, the plot is masterful in its construction, the mood is cynical but humorously so: Philip Marlowe is the private eye we root for while knowing he would hate us. Marlowe’s entanglement is a textbook case of the corrupting nature of wealth. It is also shows us how that corrupting nature has long tentacles, poisoning the well of law enforcement and the judiciary. This speaks to today’s world as it always has.

The Big Sleep may not be for everyone accustomed to the sheen of nordic noir and the modern trappings of mystery literature. But there is another reason why Chandler’s The Big Sleep should be on your reading list.

Raymond Chandler gives a damn.

I don’t mean that in the sense that the long dead writer is hovering over your shoulder as you decide upon your Amazon purchases, (although that would be pretty cool). No, Chandler gives a damn that his city is being corrupted by the rich, that the weak are being exploited and that there seems limited hope that this will change. And this is not just about creating a ‘mood.’

I don’t demand writers become engagé and march the streets like Sartre and Beauvoir. But I do want them to refrain from the mechanical writing the crime genre can suffer from, where stock characters are thrown up against each other without even a passing thought to the socioeconomic dynamics at play.  I become more engaged with when the writer is truly engaged with the world. Chandler was engaged with his world.

Do you want personal passion and social concern from your favourite crime writers or are you searching for escape from the world when you pick up a book to read?

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