The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Mystery (1939 - 231 pp.)
The Big Sleep is the world's introduction to Philip Marlowe, a tough-guy private detective in Los Angeles, and to Raymond Chandler as a novelist. Chandler's story is an interesting one in and of itself; he was 51 when The Big Sleep came out, and had done just about everything non-literary possible before then. It is to the novel, though, that I turn.
The first thing that comes to mind when reading this book is that it is just plain exciting. It is plot-driven and action-packed, like a 231-page Game of Thrones in how frequently characters die, croak, bite the dust, and, to borrow from the book's titular phrase, find themselves "sleeping the big sleep". (230) The Big Sleep's 32 chapters average about eight pages each, and are not in small print, yet each presents an important plot event. Chandler does not sacrifice description, either. His opening scene, for example, features a paragraph-long description of a stained glass window and "some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs". (2-3) The reader gets a feel for the seediness Marlowe encounters in every adventure right beside the snarky wit he displays toward it all.
Characters vary from sinister to deranged with very few exceptions. Marlowe's client, the venerable General Sternwood, has two daughters (Vivian and Carmen) who are up to antics that alternate been helping and hurting Marlowe's file. The Sternwoods' butler, Norris, has a wit nearly matching Marlowe's. Arthur Geiger comes at the reader quickly, and Marlowe has to figure out what he is trying to accomplish. Carol Lundgren is best known for his erstwhile catchphrase, "Go fuck yourself", which is surprisingly merited given his precarious position vis à vis the police. (101) As for others, I sadly cannot even divulge their names - in a book this fast-paced, telling character names could actually be a spoiler.
If there are good guys, they are certainly Marlowe and his police friends. Marlowe as a character is perhaps best summed up in a monologue he gives: "I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; the hatred of the cops... I dodge bullets and eat saps, thank you very much... that makes me a son of a bitch. All right. I don't care anything about that. I've been called that by people of all sizes and shapes." (227-228) The dynamic Marlowe shares with Sergeant Bernie Ohls is repeated in future detective fiction, a notable example occurring in Lawrence Sanders's Archie McNally series between private eye Archie McNally and Sergeant Al Rogoff. Somehow, the private detective always ends up being a little too crazy for the more level-headed sergeant, whether the series is grim (Marlowe) or comedic (McNally). Police officers' public sector employer is probably the reason for this phenomenon.
Changing cultural norms have made parts of the book feel a little anachronistic, through no fault of Chandler's. A particularly notable example is when Marlowe sits in his car drinking from an open container of whisky, not in small quantity either, but then worries only that he might receive a ticket for "overparking". (31) Similarly, racially based expressions of the era have faded from view since, like when Marlowe "harshly" calls Carmen "cute as a Filipino on a Saturday night." (154) What does this mean? Is it racist? Is it not? Unlike obviously racist characters, Marlowe's world is so full of contemporary slang it is tough to slot into modern society.
The Big Sleep cannot really be said to be educational in any academic sense, unless you study noir academically. As a cultural artifact, though, it offers a great look into what made the genre so effective. Marlowe's hard-boiled demeanour, and the book's overall senses of setting and pace, have influenced everything from Dick Tracy to Dark City to Sin City. That is worth studying a little.
Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3