Monday, June 07, 2010

'The Big Sleep' by Raymond Chandler

Fiction, 1939
Penguin, mm pb, 254 p.
Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe is working for the Sternwood family. Old Man Sternwood, crippled and wheelchair-bound, is being given the squeeze by a blackmailer and he wants Marlowe to make the problem go away. But with Sternwood’s two wild, devil-may-care daughters prowling LA’s seedy backstreets, Marlowe’s got his work cut out – and that’s before he stumbles over the first corpse…
Raymond Chandler is recognized as having a strong influence on many of the detective stories written since, so I was curious to try a proper hard-boiled novel for myself, and The Classics Circuit Golden Age of Detective Fiction Tour was the perfect push to actually do so.
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
The Big Sleep introduces us to the tough and cynical private eye, Philip Marlowe as he uncovers murder, blackmail, pornography, organized crime, and plenty of other seedy endeavors. He isn’t terribly likable, and neither are any of the other characters for that matter. It’s a very macho story filled with beautiful, weak women surrounded by chain-smoking, hard-drinking tough guys.

The strength of the book lies in Chandler’s wonderful setting of the scene. The corrupt, L.A. underworld is vividly portrayed, with the sleazy, noir atmosphere almost a character in its own right. Chandler also had quite the clever, entertaining way with words. As Ian Rankin says in the short introduction to the Penguin edition that I read, he is the king of the descriptive one-liner.
“She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain.”

“A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.”
I have to admit that I had some problems though with the overall storytelling and plot, which I found rather disjointed, and messy. And especially with the slang. All of which did affect my enjoyment somewhat as it left me often confused, and kept me from really getting into story. I suppose they did, but I also couldn’t help wonder if people really did talk that way then, and if so, my how the language has changed!
‘You got good sense. You and me’ll go out and talk to her. All I want is to find out is she dummying up on you, kid. If it’s the way you say it is, everything is jakeloo. You can put the bite on the peeper and be on your way. No hard feelings?’
‘No,’ Harry Jones said. ‘No hard feelings, Canino.’
‘Fine. Let’s dip the bill. Got a glass?’ The purring was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. A drawer was pulled open. Something jarred on wood. A chair squeaked. A scuffing sound on the floor. ‘This is bond stuff,’ the purring voice said.
There was a gurgling sound. ‘Moths in your ermine, as the ladies say.’
Overall I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I’d hoped, but it was still worth reading for the experience. I’m also curious to perhaps try one of Dashiell Hammett’s books now, as Chandler was heavily influenced by Hammett and they are often jointly referred to as the masters of hard-boiled detective fiction.

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Big Sleep Wikipedia page
The Big Sleep on TIME's list of 100 best English-Language novels from 1923 to the present

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The Classics Circuit Golden Age of Detective FictionFor other stops on The Classics Circuit Golden Age of Detective Fiction Tour, click on the button.

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  1. I just watched this movie, which is equally as confusing. I read that the filmmakers kept contacting Raymond Chandler to clear up whodunnit, but he got mad and told them to go read the book. Then he re-read it and still couldn't figure it out. So, go figure, the movie ends and you still can't figure it all out!

  2. Even if it wasn't a thoroughly enjoyable read, it does seem like one of those books you feel like you should read. Have you seen the movie? I haven't read it or seen it but it's on both of my to-do lists.

  3. Detective fiction is not my favorite genre (unless it's Wilkie Collins or Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot books). Too bad this didn't work for you!

  4. I've been thinking to read this one. But a bit disappointed it doesn't get your vouch.

  5. Great review. I read this some time ago, at my husband's urging, but really didn't like it. The language was a problem, yes, and I also disliked the gender stereotyping in the characters. The women were mostly blonde objects; the men inherently good because of their virility. Yuck!

  6. I picked up a copy of this from the museum recently (they had a photo exhibit that highlighted the 40s and of course sold books, pics, hats and suspenders evocative of the time period), but haven't had a chance to read it yet.

    I'm excited to get into Chandler's world, but am glad to hear it's not perfect. It will be nice to see how other writers took what he did and refined it to make it even better!

  7. The slang is the most difficult thing for me in these period detective novels. They all have it and it breaks my reading rhythm because I usually have to re-read the sentence for context to figure out the meaning of the word.

    I read this one before I started blogging (and a handful of other Chandlers). I think I actually like Hammett better.

  8. Between the slang and the one-liners I won't hesitate to say that I would have found this one to be a bit of a challenge. I did get that period feel to it from the dialogue. While I'm here I want to say that it was so nice to meet you a few weeks ago. Can you believe that much time has passed already?

    I am sorry that this one wasn't a little bit more enjoyable, but thanks for participating in the Classics Circuit.

  9. Raymond Chandler is my husband's favorite author. He's read just about all his books. I do hope to give him a try one of these days. I've read one Dashiell Hammett book, which I enjoyed. I'm sorry this one wasn't better for you, Nat.

  10. I'm sorry to hear you didn't enjoy it as much as you were hoping, Nat. I don't think I'll like this as much as the British cosy mysteries I tend to prefer, but I'm still curious to read it.


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