by Raymond Chandler
I have always loved the old black and white noir movies but had never read one until my book club decided to read The Big Sleep. I lead the discussion and in preparation for my “big night” as the leader of this discussion, I did some research into the author and the book. Hey, there’s a reason why I am a librarian 🙂
Chandler had a big stylistic influence on American literature. He, Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and a few other writers created the “hard boiled detective novel” as we know it.
Raymond Chandler was an oil executive who lost his job during the depression and, at the age of forty-four, started writing hard boiled detective novels. He wrote short stories for various crime magazines of the time and in 1939 published The Big Sleep. His protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is a tough private eye with a stoic demeanor and a sharp tongue, who loves liquor and has a strict moral compass that saves him in many situations, especially where women are involved. There are seven Philip Marlowe books, but the last few were written after Chandler died.
The opening paragraph sets the scene: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
What a wonderful opening paragraph!
The story begins when Marlowe is called to the mansion owned by General Sternwood. The General wants to hire him to see who is behind the blackmail threats he has been receiving about his younger daughter, Carmen. The general is very ill, wheel chaired bound and spends his time in a steamy orchid greenhouse because of his health. The General has two grown daughters, Vivian and Carmen and they are both out of control. The General mentions that his son-in-law, Rusty Regan, who is married to his older daughter, Vivian, has gone missing. He has supposedly run off with the wife of Eddie Mars who owns a casino where Vivian can frequently be found. The General is fond of Rusty and wants to find him but he does not hire Marlowe to look for him.
Vivian is a femme fatale with a gambling problem who doesn’t like “masterful” men. Marlowe has a great observation when he meets her. He said “I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.” She wants to know if her father has hired him to find her husband, Rusty Regen. Throughout the book everyone wants to know if Marlowe is looking for Rusty Regen.
Carmen, the younger sister, has become involved with a pornographer who has taken naked pictures of her and is blackmailing the General. Something isn’t right with Carmen and Marlowe is trying to figure her out. Marlowe begins investigating and he finds more than he expected.
The plot is complicated with lots of characters but the writing is unforgettable. Chandler makes you feel like you are in 1939 Hollywood with the bootleggers, pornographers and steamy rain soaked streets. Some of the dialog is no longer politically correct and some of the words might be difficult to understand in our current time but this is one terrific book.
Descriptions like this abound in The Big Sleep: “I walked to the windows and pulled the shades up and opened the windows wide. The night air came drifting in with a kind of stale sweetness that still remembered automobile exhausts and the streets of the city. I reached for my drink and drank it slowly. The apartment house door closed itself down below me. Steps tinkled on the quiet sidewalk. A car started up not far away. It rushed off into the night with a rough clashing of gears. I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.”
There is so much more to this book than just a simple crime story. The symbolism and motifs in the book are amazing. Marlowe is loyal and has a strict code of ethics even when it might impact him negatively. He is a great character and I cannot wait to read the next Philip Marlowe book, Farewell My Lovely.