For some of us, says Mick Hume, there may be no such thing as a bad detective novel, but there are none as good as Raymond Chandler’s. Even if you are unfamiliar with Chandler and have not read his Philip Marlowe novels, such is the shadow he cast that you will recognise his universe: a dark corrupt world where men are weak-hearted tough guys, women are available vixens and Hollywood dreams are dashed by ugly reality, while a wisecracking, chain-smoking detective hero stands up for what’s right.
‘I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country’, says Marlowe in a crisis: ‘What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.’
When Chandler died 50 years ago on 26 March 1959, The Times obituary said that ‘in working the common vein of crime fiction, [he] mined the gold of literature’. Today John Sutherland, emeritus professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, tells Hume that ‘Ray Chandler qualifies as the Proust of the hard-boiled detective novel. For Chandler literary style was all that mattered.’
Hume, writing for Spiked, says that Chandler, in standing on the shoulders of Dashiel Hammett – author of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon – established the ‘realistic’ detective novel that still fills bookshops and websites today.
And in Marlowe, a self-styled ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, Chandler set the standard for the detective hero as a flawed ‘man of honour’ in a bad world. In so doing he turned the common murder mystery into a moral tale of modern life. Our still-rapacious appetite for crime novels suggests that we still need Marlowe as much as ever to set our mixed-up world to rights.