Review by Gabriel
There’s a famous story that, during filming for the 1946 film adaptation of The Big Sleep, the director and screen writers couldn’t figure out if one of the characters in the novel had committed suicide or been murdered, so they contacted the novel’s author, Raymond Chandler, to seek clarification. It was only at this point – seven years after the novel had been published – that Chandler realised that he didn’t know the answer. The plot was so convoluted that even its author had trouble keeping up with it.
But The Big Sleep railroads over any faults with sheer style, thanks to its ultra-cool protagonist, colourful characters, sense of place and humour. A warning though – because everyone has things that they can’t forgive – it’s also one of the more misogynistic books you’ll read.
Philip Marlowe is the prototypical hard-boiled detective, an unflappable, cynical private sleuth. He likes “liquor and women and chess and a few other things.” He is employed by a wealthy old oil man, General Sternwood, to resolve a blackmail attempt that has come about because of one of the General’s recalcitrant daughters, Carmen. The case begins to take on a life of its own as Marlowe stumbles upon murder after murder, drawing in LA’s low-lifes and drop-dead gorgeous dames (yes, dames).
Just as when it seems that Marlowe might be getting closer to the truth, a new complication arises or he stumbles into some grave peril. There was only one point in the novel that I felt dragged, towards the middle when Marlowe has solved the blackmail threat, and I couldn’t figure out why his investigation was continuing. However, in the novel’s conclusion, the General poses this very question to him, and the answer both satisfies the reader and adds depth to the protagonist.
Chandler’s LA is one of excess and corruption, of mansions and smut and death by lonely road sides. It is a wonderfully realised setting that has been employed by many other writers and directors. I sometimes find that influential books can seem a bit worn because they have so often imitated that the original’s genius becomes commonplace. Yet The Big Sleep still manages to feel fresh and exciting.
A lot of this is due to the wit and skill of the writer, and the unique perspective of the protagonist. Marlowe is fearless and uninhibited with no regard for wealth or power. He constantly slings out dry one-liners and wry observations whether he is in a millionaire‘s parlour or a gangster‘s den. Chandler is also the master of the humorous similes which perfectly describes an action and character. Here are some of the better ones:
“She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain.”
“I lit the cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat-hole.”
“She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessman’s lunch”
As you can probably tell from these quotes, Marlowe unashamedly appraises women. His sexuality is constantly on show, but he is never mastered by it. He liberally applies the backhand to hysterical girls, and they love him for it. And, of course, women who have the same appetites as Marlowe are inevitably evil or insane. Make no mistake – The Big Sleep is misogynistic. If you’re offended by that sort of thing, avoid it.
But if you can accept these things as a product of their times, or ignore them due to the many merits of the book, you should love The Big Sleep. It’s funny, fast-paced, well-written, and, if you’ve never read Chandler before, you’ll finally understand what a lot of your favourite authors are gushing about. It’s also genre fiction that has attained classic status, so you can read it and still maintain your literary snob image.