I recently decided to reread all of Raymond Chandler as part of a reading project I have undertaken on American hardboiled fiction and the development of film noir. I didn't care for the very old and rather battered mass market editions that I owned. I had intended to get all of Chandler in the Library of America editions, but the second I realized I could get the same thing in Everyman editions I instantly changed my mind. Although the LOA edition includes Chandler's film scripts as well, I prefer the Everyman in every other way. In fact, the current generation of Everyman editions is hands down my favorite editions of any books. Whenever I want to read or reread a classic, I always check to see if there is an Everyman edition. For instance, when I reread Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE, I was delighted to see that it was available in and Everyman edition and so I upgraded from my old mass market copy. The only recent exception to this was when I came to Dashiell Hammett. In order to do justice to his stories I've had to get a mixture of editions, primarily because the Library of America left so many stories out of their collection of his crime stories. And while Everyman has a beautiful edition of THE WEALTH OF NATIONS by Adam Smith, the right wing propaganda publisher Liberty Books (the publishing wing of the Heritage Foundation) publishes an amazingly inexpensive reprint of the Glasgow Edition (the major academic edition of Smith's works), originally published by Oxford University Press.
The Everyman editions are everything books should be. They are bound in cloth. They are sewn in signatures. The paper is an acid-free cream-colored paper that is nonreflective and featuring a beautiful font. The volumes are inviting and marvelous to hold. And I love the page size. Each book is approximately the size of a trade paperback. It is as if the publisher sat down to design the perfect book. Whether that was their intent, it was the result.
This volume contains a wonderful introductory essay by Diane Johnson along with the first three novels that Raymond Chandler wrote. Of the great writers, Chandler got possibly the latest start. He was in his mid-forties when he first started writing for publication and fifty when THE BIG SLEEP was released. In one way he did nothing that had not already been done by Dashiell Hammett, but there is no question he put his own indelible stamp on the hardboiled genre. The difference between what Chandler and Hammett were doing and what, say, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and other drawing room detective novelists were doing was vast. The whole point of a Christie or Sayers novel was the solving of the mystery. The story was built around a puzzle. For Chandler, on the other hand, the story was almost an afterthought, almost a triviality. He seems to have expended very little thought on his plots. Instead, he focused all of his energies on character, narrative, and dialogue. Has any writer every written so many great metaphors or similes? "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food." His books (and stories) contain dozens if not hundreds of similar lines. He is almost unquestionably the most imitated writer in history, as scores of other writers have either emulated or parodied his prose style.
Although he published THE BIG SLEEP at age 50, it bears none of the marks of a neophyte writer. It does have a cynical world weariness that was not at odds with Chandler's own worldview. Philip Marlowe is a knight errant, but a battered one. In one of Chandler's greatest short stories, "Red Wind," Marlowe is hired to find a stolen set of pearl's that a woman was given by her one true love, a man who had died before they could be married. Marlow recovers the pearls, only to realize that they were fake. Knowing that they will be examined closely upon their return and revealed (and their giver along with them) as fakes, he has some poor fakes made instead. He then tells his client that the pearls had already been sold and presents her with the fakes in their stead. He thereby protects the woman's life sustaining delusion that she had once been loved by a truly good man. The story ends with Marlowe sitting on a rock in Malibu tossing the pearls one by one into the Pacific. Marlowe knows have nasty the world can be, but he is determined to protect the few good and comforting things that he can.
This volume collects Chandler's first three novels. The first two are among his greatest. The third, THE HIGH WINDOW, is very readable and fun, but many of the plot devices are atrocious, such as the outrageous conceit that a near unknown would give Marlowe his apartment key so that he could later get into his apartment and discover his dead body. And there is a far-fetched gun switching device that indicates that Chandler simply couldn't be bothered to improve upon. But THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY are both wonderful novels, full of wonderfully savage prose, demented characters, and descriptions of a Los Angeles that helped give birth and form to countless film noirs.
Thanks to Everyman, it is very simple to collect all the Raymond Chandler you'd ever want to own. There is a second collection of novels, which includes THE LADY IN THE LAKE, THE LITTLE SISTER, THE LONG GOODBYE, and PLAYBACK (the latter the lone truly bad Philip Marlowe novel, written near the end of Chandler's life and following the death of his beloved wife). And THE COLLECTED STORIES brings together the truly remarkable group of tales that Chandler wrote, most before publishing THE BIG SLEEP, many featuring Philip Marlowe. I strongly recommend all of them. Along with Dashiell Hammett (collecting whose major work is a far more complex affair) and Ross MacDonald, this is the very heart of American hardboiled fiction.