The Big Sleep
“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad, I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
Few books come closer to defining a genre than The Big Sleep. It is quite arguably the single most perfect example of what hardboiled detective fiction is about. It marked my own first real dip into the genre, and left a permanent mark on me. But it defines more than just a style and genre of fiction, it also holds up as a powerful portrayal of the society of the time. It was an America ten years after the fall of the stock market, with all the chaos and disorder that it brought, and where prohibition had finally been abandoned, allowing people to delve into what only a few years previously had been regarded both publically and politically as a grave sin and force of evil. The presence of these two fears linger throughout the whole of The Big Sleep, characterised in the portrayal it presents of Los Angeles, which itself is as much as a character in the book as the actors within. It also marked the now-legendary Raymond Chandler’s debut novel and first serious literary attempt.
For the previous several years, he had made his living as a short-story writer for magazines such as Black Mask. Having honed his craft in the annuls of pulp fiction, he took what he considered to be the best parts of various previous stories and worked them into a single (yet deceptively complex) narrative. More importantly, he introduced the character of Philip Marlowe – now the archetypal private eye.
Published in 1939, The Big Sleep starts out with Marlowe – a well-dressed but tough-talking private investigator operating a lonely, sole practice – attending the home of the wealthy General Sternwood, who is being blackmailed over the rather questionable actions carried out by his youngest daughter, Carmen. The meeting is a classic example of the witty yet clever use of language which this type of fiction is known for, and Chandler himself was a particular master of dialogue. Few sentences can be said to have been irreverent, and he bashes the similes out with barely enough time for a cigarette break. Following the meeting, Marlowe encounters the eldest Sternwood daughter, the morally ambiguous Vivian, whose own husband, ‘Rusty’ Regan has recently disappeared. Whilst this appears to start out as an incidental backstory to the character, it soon becomes central to the plot and the two cases become intrinsically entwined.
The plot starts out simple enough, but the layers of complexity quickly grow deeper as the story progresses and more characters come into the fold. What starts out as a blackmail in investigation soon turns into several murders and mysterious developments, all based around themes of lust and social evils (pornography and homosexuality being the prime examples). The women here are sexy and deadly in equal measure. Each tries to manipulate (and indeed, sleep with) Marlowe, and each is very much the presentative of lust and sin which post-prohibition America was revelling in at the time. The story boasts an impressive collection of dubious, shady characters who can be trusted as much as a rattlesnake next to an infant. It means that an air of doubt exists throughout the whole book – at any moment, you think that one character could come along and for the plot to go any deeper could risk pulling the rug out of the whole affair. It’s certainly complex, but Chandler does his best to keep it above water, and the inevitable revelations at the end make it all worthwhile. It may be confusing, but it is entirely to Chandler’s credit – a crime tale that fails to make you guess isn’t much of a tale.
Some critics (as well as many fans) have accused Chandler of not being the greatest at plotting in his books, and whilst this may be true of some of the later works (The High Window and Playback, perhaps), The Big Sleep shows just how detailed and complex he could work his tales up.
As mentioned above, the book is rich in snappy dialogue that can’t fail to bring a smirk to the face as you read it. The descriptions and language used by Chandler is colourful and inventive in its own way. It makes the city of Los Angeles come alive in a way that few other writers can master, and the central characters – Marlowe himself along with Vivian and Carmen Sternwood – are drawn in a way that can’t help leave you wanting more. Fortunately, there were many more Marlowe novels to go, however he made a point of not returning to previous characters (with the notable exception of Marlowe’s buddy Bernie Ohls and Linda Loring), and so this book is all we ever see of the Sternwood family. Ultimately though, it is the character of Marlowe which is the pinpoint of the book, as well as Chandler’s career as a whole.
Chandler later remarked in his essay The Simple Art of Murder that “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” He is also someone who “might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things” and, ultimately “He is a common man or he could not go among common people.” With The Big Sleep, Chandler introduced a character who was tough, wise-talking but honourable as far as his profession would allow. It is his on thirst for truth and justice which leads him towards the end of the plot, when the basic case appears over and he is offered a rather generous fee not as a reward, but rather as a bribe to keep away, along with the advances of the two Sternwood girls. It is a theme which Chandler would return to in future works (particularly The Long Goodbye), but The Big Sleep takes the credit for being the first to present the character in all his flawed, inglorious glory to us.
(Bogart and Bacall together in 1946’s The Big Sleep)
If ever there was a book which sums up noir, detective fiction, and post-prohibition America in one fell swoop, the title has to go to The Big Sleep. It is rightly regarded as a touchstone of crime fiction, and without a doubt deserves all of the praise given to it. Two major film adaptions followed – the first being a classic movie in its own right, released in 1946 and staring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in roles which would serve to define their careers. The second was a 1977 modern-day adaption starring an ageing Robert Mitchum set in London, England which unfortunately failed to miss the mark (although one viewing of 1946’s Out of the Past, staring a young Mitchum in the role of detective Jeff Bailey shows that he could have been a great Marlowe had he been given the chance during the heyday). The Bogart-Bacall adaption is a superb movie which manages to make a good job of adapting a rather complex and occasionally convoluted plot, but even this doesn’t quite match the original book for sheer inventiveness and impact. It’s a book no crime lover should go without.