* Prices may differ from that shown
This is an audiobook double bill that gives you Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and The High Window - both read by Ed Bishop. The Big Sleep was Chandler's first Phillip Marlowe novel and published in 1938. It introduces us to his famous hardboiled detective hero, a combination of Chandler himself and the traditional pulp hero. Marlowe remains an entertaining, even complex hero as our window into these stories. He's boorish but sensitive, full of bitterness but imbued with a sense of honour and idealism, a loner and borderline alcoholic who nevertheless still dresses sharply and does his best to make the world a better place. As much as anything though it's Marlowe's sarcastic sense of humour that still makes these books fun to read or listen to today. His endless dry observations and musings on the strange people he invariably meets over the course of a typical day in his singular line of work. "Mr Cobb was my escort. Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten - when Larry Cobb was sober." The book is set in post-war Los Angeles and begins with Marlowe called out to the mansion of the wealthy General Sternwood. The General, who is elderly and an invalid, is having trouble with his young wayward daughters. Vivian has been running up gambling debts while Carmen is an opium addict who has posed for naked photographs. Someone is now threatening to blackmail Sternwood with the negatives.
Sternwod is unwilling to pay the blackmailer off but aware that he is too old to keep constant watch over his daughters now. He hires Marlowe to investigate the blackmail attempt and smash any crooks behind the scheme. This will be easier said than done of course and Phillip Marlowe is inevitably going to get rather bruised and battered before this knotty case is through. Further intrigue is supplied by Vivian's husband Regan having disappeared. Was he involved in the blackmail? How about the bookseller Arthur Geiger? Marlowe has no shortage of lines of enquiry as he begins a case that's going to require an industrial amount of black coffee to crack. This is another decent stab at an audio version of Chandler with Ed Bishop again taking on the role of Phillip Marlowe. He's ok but maybe doesn't quite have sufficient grit and enough sardonic world weariness to completely inhabit the detective's period world. Bishop is decent enough but doesn't have the voice of someone who has just drank a copious amount of scotch, been pistol whipped and is now eating scrambled eggs at three o'clock in the morning as the rain puddled alleys outside shimmer under street lights and almost sigh with loneliness and lost dreams. These books are not a million miles away from Fleming's Bond books (obviously without supervillains trying to take over the world) but they are better I think. Chandler has a great sense of style and has survived parody and sniffy critics who feel his work is too pulpy to be considered truly great.
I like his descriptive sense in this story. Maybe he's too pedantic at times but it gives you a great sense of location and always chimes with Marlowe's own way of expressing himself. "The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying." This style is a fusion of Chandler the former poet who had an English education and the all American Chandler who furiously wrote pulp detective stories. It's an enjoyably twisty and at times bizarre story that taps into the seedy underbelly of life in the city. Marlowe is endlessly threatened and beaten up but doggedly sticks to his mission and all is eventually revealed. The clever thing about the construction of the story is that it isn't really a whodunit. Rather than clues the suspense comes from atmosphere and our real curiosity is always not who committed the crimes but rather what Marlowe will make of it all. Clever stuff.
"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made to be seen from thirty feet away." The High Window was published in 1942. In this story Marlowe is hired by Elizabeth Bright Murdock to find a valueable coin that has been plundered from her safe. Mrs Murdock's chief suspicion falls on the estranged wife of her son, a showgirl who she has never trusted or liked much. As ever, Marlowe fearlessly throws himself into the case but (equally as ever) finds it to be far more complicated than it appeared on the surface when he was hired in the first place. Who took the coin? And who exactly is Mrs Murdock anyway? Is she hiding something? The High Window lacks the audacity and freshness of The Big sleep and Farewell, My Lovely but it's still a decent enough outing for our very human hero. There is a palpable weariness to Chandler by now and Marlowe is becoming rather Holden Caulfield as he rails against the phoney world he is forced to inhabit. Chandler was drinking a lot again when he wrote this and boozed sodden passages abound. "Then he picked the glass up and tasted it and sighed again and shook his head sideways with a half smile; the way a man does when you give him a drink and he needs it very badly and it is just right and the first swallow is like a peek into a cleaner, sunnier, brighter world."
The low rent world that Marlowe increasingly finds himself in is even more Hellish than usual here and although the descriptive flourishes and smartarse asides and lines from the detective are still well worth your time this story doesn't quite live up to expectations if you are familiar with the first two Chandler Marlowe books. The plot this time is propelled by coincidence and chance and seems to indicate that Chandler was not quite at the top of his game when he wrote this. There is still a jaunty and confident quality to the prose but the actual construction of the story is not as strong. Still a fun book though and Ed Bishop is a decentish (if not perfect) voice for Chandler again with some nice suggestions of a full cast. The definitive voice of Marlowe is yet to be found but these Bishop versions are certainly not bad at all if you like the books. At the time of writing you can buy a used copy of this Chandler double bill for £1.99.
Two BBC radio dramatisations of Raymond Chandler novels featuring the cynical, world-weary detective - Philip Marlowe.