Chandler is, bar none, the best writer of the so-called "hard boiled detective" genre, and this is his greatest work.
In a labyrinthine plot featuring corrupt, orchid-growing millionaires, beautiful blondes, gray men with guns and the cynical, deeply romantic narrator-protagonsit Marlowe, we see Los Angeles of the 1940s as Marlowe looks for the truth about murder, pornography and, ultimately, loss.
The sheer genius of Chandler's writing-- aside from the accompished plot twists-- is his deceptively simple language, which sparkles, and his narrator's deadpan wit. From the descriptions of women ("Inside was a blonde. A blonde! A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.") to the caustic remarks in the face of death ("She would either shoot me, or she wouldn't.") to his existential comments ("I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun"), Marlowe is as entertainign to lsiten to as he is to watch.
Chandler's achievement here goes beyond the action sequences, or the wit of his narrator, or the complexity of his plots. His narrator, the tough-as-nails Marlowe, appeals because he is profoundly romantic at heart, but doomed, like Hamlet, to be disappointed. Like Hamlet-- who writes a play to discover the origins of his misery-- Marlowe too is a storyteller, whose stories lead to one kind of understanding, where actions and sequences finally cohere. But Marlowe's dilemmas are Hamlet's, in that although he can tell the story, his sense of what it all means at the end is far from complete.
Chandler's stories are really about people who are lost. Marlowe's quest to find the body and re-tell the story-- although always successful-- is always undermined by his elliptical and understated awareness that, for all our ingenuity and striving, it all ultimately comes down, as it does for Hamlet and for all of us, to the big sleep.