Books 46-47 in Cannonball Read 2
Both Chandler and Hammett are revered by writers, and perhaps undervalued for the same reason: the economy and simplicity of their writing. Like Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or, I would argue, Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, both The Big Sleep and The Thin Man are so straightforward and unassuming in their storytelling that they make it seem easy to write a book this good.
The Big Sleep introduced Philip Marlowe, a hard-drinking world-weary detective - before that was a stereotype. Marlowe is hired to investigate some IOU’s sent for collection to General Sternwood, the dying father of two young women who seem to get in a lot of trouble. Marlowe gets involved in a web of criminal activity, and continues to investigate even when he has done his job for no other reason than he needs to know.
The Thin Man involves a detective, Nick Charles, who refuses to work on the case but continues to be involved against his will. The Thin Man has a much lighter tone than The Big Sleep, mostly owing to Nick’s relationship with his wife Nora. (Side note: I recently watched the movie version of The Thin Man, it’s divine. If you haven’t seen it, check it out).
Both books tell complicated stories, with dozens of characters that are all suspect at some point or another. The main characters are well drawn,so much so that no action they take is surprising - though the circumstances in which they find themselves are constantly surprising. Both books also clock in under 200 pages, packing a great deal more story, character, wit, and wisdom into those pages than many writers can put into 400+. Books this simple, and simply good, are uncommon. Chandler once said that it takes 10 years of writing to figure out anything worthwhile to say, and another 10 to figure out how to say it. Both Chandler and Hammett show at least 50 years of writing experience in their novels.