Books: a book that changed me

MARK TIMLIN on Raymond Chandler's 'The Big Sleep'
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When did you first read it? When I moved from the local children's library to the adult section at the age 12 or thereabouts - an important rite of passage at the time. It was disconcerting to be faced with so many books without pictures. God alone knows why I ended up with this particular book. Probably I just liked the title, being a morbid little sod.

Why did it strike you so much? It probably didn't at the time. I was devouring everything I could get my hands on, visiting the library almost every day. It was only later that I realised Chandler had invented a genre. A genre I was more than pleased to ride the coat tails of decades later.

Do you identify with the hero? Absolutely. Being an only child with few friends I'd always identified with loners, and Philip Marlowe is maybe the ultimate loner in fiction. Of course, at the time, I didn't understand half of what was going on. In the late Fifties, 12-year-old grammar school boys from Streatham were remarkably unsophisticated.

Have you re-read it? If so how many times? I've read it about 100 times and dipped into odd sections even more. I know chunks of it by heart and watch the film every time it's shown on TV. Bogart is Philip Marlowe to me, and who could resist the young Lauren Bacall? Not me, and certainly not Bogart himself.

Does it feel the same as when you first read it? As far as the plot is concerned, not at all. Having seen some thing of the rougher side of life since I first met Marlowe and the Sternwood family all those years ago, I can now understand something of all their motivations. But as far as the writing itself is concerned, it is still some of the finest in the English language, even though these days it has become something of a sport for contemporary crime writers to belittle Chandler. Mostly, I might add, by writers who are not good enough to change the ribbon in his typewriter.

Do you recommend it? Naturally. How could I not? It is the blueprint for my own work and I envy anyone who hasn't read it.

Mark Timlin's latest novel 'Dead Flowers' is published by Gollancz at pounds 16.99

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