The Big Sleep

by Raymond Chandler

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

Because nearly everyone who reads this book today will have already seen the seminal film, there are a few things we’ve got to get out of the way.

First, the characters in the film were so wonderfully rendered that you won’t be able to get away from the life breathed into them from the movie. Character descriptions are different in the book, but that won’t matter; you’re going to picture these guys very much as the film portrayed them.

Second, the film’s convoluted plot is a bit easier to understand here in the book, but that doesn’t help as much as you might think because this novel is relentlessly complicated. It’s not just the facts that make it so, either. The leaps of logic Marlowe takes would make for a whiteboard outline of the story that would be covered in strings connecting plot points like you’ve only seen in the workrooms of the most brilliant psychopaths in movies.

As for the story, summing up the plot in a way that accurate describes the story is futile. The broad strokes involve a dying rich man hiring private detective Philip Marlowe to investigate the blackmail of one of his two wild, promiscuous daughters, and the mess the detective has to unravel as the plot thickens to concrete. There’s blackmail, kidnapping, murder, pornography, racketeering, bribery, police corruption and the insanity of the privileged few just to get started.

Perhaps in spite of the complex plotting, the novel, and especially the character of Marlowe, manages to grow into something endearing. The idea of the (mostly) honest man doing his best to help someone, to risk so much for such a shabby paycheck, and to keep digging no matter what kind of mad mystery he’s involved in, gives us a special kind of Superman. Marlowe and the rich old man may be the only ones shooting straight in a corrupt world, but that’s no excuse for them to become crooked themselves.

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.”

The two daughters, Vivian and Carmen, are pure hellcats, and the older of the two played by Bacall in the movies isn’t much like the playful, softened version we saw onscreen. These ladies are screwed up in big ways, and they don’t have much issue with others in their circles drowning in the whirlpools they create. Carmen’s especially so, but the Vivian from the film just isn’t present here, even if we can’t help but replace the author’s character image with Bacall’s in our minds. These two really drive much of the plot, but have little to no redeeming traits.

It’s Marlowe that allows this thing to shine, and Mr. Chandler’s first novel introduces the character with a gong-like crash that leaves its reverb echoing long after the intricacies have stopped and the book’s been set aside. In a world that just doesn’t leave much room for a decent guy and stacks all the odds against him, he’ll cash his paltry checks and keep on searching for the right path with a wisecrack around every corner, because that’s just the only way he knows how to operate.

“Marlowe’s the name. The guy you’ve been trying to follow around for a couple of days.”
“I ain’t following anybody, doc.”
“This jalopy is. Maybe you can’t control it.”

This novel may be a bit tough for casual readers considering its twisting complexity, but it’s a necessity for crime fans and a triumphant introduction to Philip Marlowe.

It was a nice write-up. It gave the impression that Geiger had been killed the night before, that Brody had been killed about an hour later, and that Captain Cronjager had solved both murders while lighting a cigarette.

4+ stars

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