Raymond Chandler's L.A. Noir

shelved under Fiction, Travel & Places, and Beach Reads

Between 1939 and 1953, Raymond Chandler wrote seven slim novels featuring L.A.-based private investigator Philip Marlowe, a guy who is all heart and honor wrapped in a fat stubborn streak. Chandler’s use of language is as sharp and bright as a stainless steel ice pick; it's so original, it is both imitated and parodied. He has influenced virtually every major author of detective stories in the past 60 years, and he is recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest American writers. I've read every one of Chandler's books at least twice, and several many more times than that. Start at the beginning.


The Big Sleep (1939)

by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler made a career of scratching the shiny parts off of L.A.’s image; this story, which unfolds at the place where wealth, addiction, venality and murder intersect, set the standard. We first meet Philip Marlowe on a cloudy Los Angeles day as he leaves home to meet his new client, oil millionaire General Sternwood. He gives us a status report: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” The moment he crosses the threshold of the Sternwood mansion, he and the reader begin a journey into darkness and death. The General is a fading corpse flower of a man who shivers while swathed in blankets in his overheated greenhouse. The two Sternwood daughters — vicious, infantile Carmen and arrogant but appealing Vivian — are trouble personified. The General initially hires Marlowe to deal with a potential blackmail matter involving Carmen, but the detective is quickly sucked into a vortex of overlapping motives, secrets within secrets and at least six violent deaths. It’s a book that fulfills the most important goals of mystery writing: it is a page turner that keeps the reader guessing right up to the end, and then presents a solution that seems inevitable. Chandler trivia: Although Chandler was also a screenwriter — he wrote “Double Indemnity” and the 1951 screenplay for “Strangers on a Train” — William Faulkner was the head writer on Howard Hawks’ 1946 film of “The Big Sleep.”


Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

by Raymond Chandler

When Marlowe first runs into ex-con Moose Malloy — “a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck” — he is literally dragged into a bar fight. Moose is looking for his Velma, a former dance hall girl. But Velma doesn’t want to be found. In short order Marlowe is caught in an intricate web of plotlines involving stolen jade, murder, hidden identities, more murder, a psychic consultant and more murder. Chandler said about writing mysteries, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” This book is riddled with instances of such doubt. It is also populated by eccentric characters of a type most of us will never meet, and yet are they are completely believable as flesh-and-blood people in Marlowe’s Los Angeles. “Farewell My Lovely” is a page-turner and in many ways one of Chandler’s best, but it is marred by racism. There are flashes of bigotry and homophobia in his other books, but this one takes it farther and makes it hard to separate the author from the work.


The High Window (1942)

by Raymond Chandler

Mrs. Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a wealthy, port-drinking widow, summons Marlowe to “an old, musty, fusty, narrow-minded, clean and bitter room” to find a valuable stolen coin, the Brasher Dubloon.


The Lady in the Lake (1943)

by Raymond Chandler

Dead bodies start piling up like cordwood when Derace Kingsley hires Marlowe to find his missing wife, Crystal. The hunt takes him from bucolic Little Fawn Lake to the sleazy, festering Bay City. Moral: stay out of Bay City.


The Little Sister (1949)

by Raymond Chandler

It takes Marlowe only a moment or two to see that Orfamay Quest, a Kansas girl in search of her big brother, is too goody-two-shoes to be true. He takes her case anyway, and within hours is up to his neck in ice-pick killers, Hollywood starlets, big-shot managers, mobsters and murder. Chandler’s screenwriter voice shows through in this book in cluster of tone-setting narrative speeches. They just add to the fun of a fast-moving story that keeps revealing surprises right up to the final chapter.


The Long Goodbye (1953)

by Raymond Chandler

A chance meeting turns Marlowe into the instant best and only friend of a charming but self-destructive drunk, triggering a quest for truth and a series of harsh encounters with high society, mobsters and the law. In 1973 Robert Altman made “The Long Goodbye” into a movie with that least likely of Marlowes, Elliot Gould. Some people consider this Chandler’s best mystery, but I find it a little wordier and world-wearier than Chandler at his best. Still, even at his worst Chandler can out-write 90% of mystery writers.

This book also appears on Nine Booze-Soaked Books


Playback (1958)

by Raymond Chandler

Marlowe is hired to follow a redhead so beautiful, she’s “as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.” She is on the run, but the more he follows her the more he likes her. Eventually he decides he prefers her to his client. This is Chandler’s last book. It is unusual in that our hero becomes romantically involved. But that could just be Hollywood talk — the book is based on a rejected screenplay with the same title. While by no means his best book, it still contains plenty of surprises.