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September 18, 2009

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I almost didn't buy this volume of Raymond Chandler's first four Philip Marlowe novels when I found it in a thriftstore a few months ago but I'm so glad I did. I haven't been this excited about "discovering" an author since I first stumbled upon Bukowski back in 1998. There's something similar in the style and it's probably no coincidence that Bukowski's final book was a first-person private investigator narrative. What separates Chandler from typical potboilers is the cynical perspective, acute detail, and glorious language. In college we read Dashiell Hammett, but as usual the professors got it wrong. True, Hammett pretty much invented the hard-boiled detective genre (which later translated into film noir), but Chandler perfected it. In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett's prose is dull and workmanlike, the story told in detached third-person, whereas Chandler's language is a thing of beauty in itself. The first-person voice puts the complex Marlowe in high relief and the specificity of the metaphors belongs more to poetry than crime fiction. I burned through the first four in a week and saved rereading them for this European trip. Knowing how they end doesn't diminish the experience; it's more like visiting an old friend. If you think you know Chandler because you've seen some of the movies, forget it. Howard Hawks' much-lauded 1946 version of The Big Sleep is a travesty. The only way to get a feel for the work is to read it. And if you're like me, you'll read it again. "Who done it" doesn't matter; it's the doing, the unfolding of sentences page by page that makes Chandler such a pleasure.