So I feel just awful about this - I've never read Raymond Chandler before this week. I'm sure in the past I might have read excerpts or snippets, but never one of his novels. Last week I picked up his first novel, the 1939 classic The Big Sleep, and gave it a (very quick) read. I finished the book in a couple of evenings. It's not especially large, nor is it terribly complex, but damn, is it ever good.
First, I feel Chandler is a great writer. His style is quick, it's clean, and it's very visual; he uses a lot of analogies and a lot of relational imagery. The downside of this is, of course, that his style has been parodied unto death by decades of "crime novel" writers who have turned Chandler's style into caricature. In many ways, it's the same problem Robert E. Howard has had in terms of his reputation being built not on his original works, but on the 70+ years of pastiches, copycats, and imitators who all tried to follow on his stylistic coat-tails.
Beyond the writing, there is the story itself - the sleaze, the corruption, the greed and the hatred. For a book written in 1939, it is almost shocking in it's plunge into the gutter. The Big Sleep is a plot filled with sex, pornography, illicit homosexuality (so not the shiny happy 2011 state of homosexuality, but the dominating, woman-hating, unable to just be myself kind you see in such period exploitation fiction, like Eddie the Dane in Miller's Crossing), drugs, gambling, drinking, mental dysfunction, abuse both verbal and physical...it's quite the catalog of vice and depravity, and Phillip Marlowe swims through it all like a battle-scarred sea lion.
If the Private Eye story set the tone for much of the 20th century's crime fiction (setting aside the Sherlock Holmes-style detective story archetype which is much older), Raymond Chandler's fiction set the standard for the Private Eye story, and I believe The Big Sleep is the book that set him on his path to immortality as a literary figure. So many works of fiction - either written or filmed or made for television (or my 5th grade musical play, Lucky Dollar, Private Eye), owe their creative genesis to Chandler's works.
All in all, if you're a fan of crime thrillers, or even just 20th Century American fiction, it is worth it to at least read one Chandler. At the very least, you'll know what I mean when I refer to Chandler's Law.