The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Posted by RB Kollannur on July 15, 2012
Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.
Published on 14/07/2012
Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1939; Pages – 251; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 399
The life of a private eye is a glamorous one, at least when it pays. It is filled with mystery and intrigue and they get to sneak around the grey boundaries of the society to solve it. Danger and death awaits them at every corner, but so does the elusive femme fatale. Unfortunately, Hollywood has provided us with many a detective story that they have become too much of a cliché these days. But in the 1930s, the Hollywood detective stories were still in its formative stage and still very fresh in people’s minds.
Philip Marlowe was the original American private eye. Marlowe was everything an American PI was purported to be – the hard drinking, wisecracking private eye who does not leave any case unclosed. Minus the sexy secretary of course, because he is not one to be easily taken in by a femme fatale. True, Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon came before him, but it was Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe that established the genre. The Big Sleep was the first book of the series and was published in 1939 before being made into a movie in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Incidentally, Bogart had earlier played the role of Sam Spade as well, in the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon.
Philip Marlowe is hired by an ageing General Sternwood to rein in a blackmailer. But the plot is not as simple as it seems. The plot further thickens with the first murder and then the second and a third adding parallel cases to the main one. The characters have shifting allegiances with friend turning foe and vice versa.
In play are the General’s two daughters – the older, mature and ruthless Vivian and the younger, childish, perhaps insane Carmen. So, the sleuth has to deal with two femme fatales lying in his path. The novel has a twisted plot as it wades through many socially unapproachable topics for 1930s US like pornography and homosexuality.
The thing that stands out for me in The Big Sleep is its descriptive nature. Like a good detective, Marlowe takes down careful observations of everything he comes across, but the author jots it down in a way that can entice the interest of the reader to the observation. Raymond Chandler has peppered the novel with one-liners and wisecracks reminiscent of another Chandler on the tube, but at times they can be missed since they belong to a different era.
As a crime fiction that created its own genre, The Big Sleep is a master-class. But to understand the nuances and truly enjoy the book you need to be an avid fan of the private eye stories.