Monday, July 31, 2017

"The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler

I always have a terrible problem when reading Raymond Chandler.  I want to zip through to the end because his mysteries are so gripping, but at the same time, I want to read them slowly so I can savor his writing.  I want to pause and relish the flavor of his words, roll them around in my head, revel in their distinctive wonder.  But I also want desperately to know what happens next.  Even though I've read all his novels and short stories before and vaguely remember how they go, I still get sucked straight into them.

The Big Sleep is the first thing by Raymond Chandler I ever read.  I read it in high school, in a collection of "great mysteries" that my parents had on a high shelf in our basement.  That collection was also my first introduction to Leslie Chartris' Simon Templar and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and I devoured the collection secretly, stealing time to read between school assignments.  (I probably could have finished high school in two years if I hadn't done this sort of thing all the time.)

I have to admit, the first time I read this, around the age of 17, I just zipped through it and on to the next book in the collection.  I liked the noir feel of it, I knew Philip Marlowe was a famous detective, and I knew there was a movie version of this starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall that I'd been wanting to see for a while.  But I didn't exactly savor and relish and revel in the words.  Not yet. But eventually, I wised up.

What draws me to Chandler's novels, besides the perfect, unexpected, gleaming writing?  It's not the plots -- this one is twisted, yet thin, and Chandler himself admitted he had no idea who killed that poor chauffeur.  Nope, it's Philip Marlowe himself.  You know I have to want to be friends with the characters in a book if I'm going to love the book, and that is 100% the case here.  I would love to befriend Philip Marlowe.  He could use a good friend.  He's such a complex guy -- such a brilliant mix of cynicism and hope.  He has no faith in people, but he wishes that he did.  He's in a dirty business, but he's not a dirty guy.  As Chandler said in an essay about hardboiled mysteries, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."  That's Marlowe all over -- not mean, not afraid, and not tarnished by all the foul things he has to investigate, encounter, and do.  Man alive, I love that guy.  I once named a camera after him, actually.

And that's what separates Chandler from my other two favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  I admire all three of them for the way they write, but I also love what Chandler writes, whereas Fitzgerald and Hemingway's stories are generally not things I love.  (Yes, I'm the same person who just led a read-along of The Great Gatsby.  I don't love Gatsby, but I do enjoy that one, at least.  I enjoy a couple of Hemingway's too.)  Interesting that they were all writing in the early part of the 20th century.

I suppose I should mention what the plot of The Big Sleep is.  Well, there's this old millionaire with two badly behaved daughters.  He hires Marlowe to figure out who's blackmailing him about some gambling debts one of the daughters incurred.  But really he wants to know if his ex-son-in-law is behind it.  By the time Marlowe solves things, he'll have to deal with pornographers, murderers, extortionists, gamblers, and those wayward daughters.  All handled in a remarkably tasteful way, really.  Except for his homophobia -- that's not tasteful, but it's also not surprising given this was written in the 1930s.  Many modern readers would find it shocking, I'm sure.  Much as I love Marlowe, I admit he's not perfect.  He wouldn't be realistic if he was.

Particularly Good Bits:

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness (p. 150).

I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets (p. 159).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  A hard PG-13 for sexual matter handled in a non-explicit way, bad language, and violence.

I know a lot of people don't consider Chandler's books to be classics.  I do.  I think we'll be reading and marveling over them for hundreds of years, long after we've forgotten who lesser crime fiction authors ever were.  And I'm not just saying that out of loyalty to him because he's my favorite author -- I really think he's that good.  So this is my 11th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with The Classics Club.

This is also my 7th book read and reviewed for the Adventure of Reading Challenge hosted by Heidi Pekarek.


  1. I'm not here to argue - you already know I'm not a big fan of the genre, but I am willing to give Chandler his due. I think (though I'm decidedly somewhat ignorant), he is the Gold Standard for the genre. I particularly like what you said about the person of Philip Marlow - I definitely see that. AND - I shall soon correct my underexposure to the genre. My 100 Greatest Novels quest did not include many detective novels (in fact, this was the only one), but I'm nearing the end of that quest and I have added some Christie, Spillane, Hammett, and yes more Chandler to the next 100. they might make a fan of me yet.

    1. Joseph, I shall make a confession: I have never read anything by Mickey Spillane. But I will one day! I do enjoy some of Hammett's stuff, he's similar to Chandler in many ways. Agatha Christie... I'm not a big fan, but I do enjoy her Poirot books now and then, especially if I just want some light reading.

  2. and of course...I am working slowly through the Complete Sherlock Holmes, but is it just me, or is Sherlock rather a genre unto himself?

    1. The Sherlock Holmes canon is a very special thing. No one has ever managed to quite replicate those stories, though many have tried. They're kind of above and beyond the mystery genre. At least, I think so!


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