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on December 28, 2002
"The Big Sleep," written in 1939, was Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel. Chandler went on to write several other classic noir novels, like "Farewell, My Lovely," "The High Window," and "The Long Goodbye." Chandler did not start writing his classic works until the age of forty-five, when he began submitting short stories to pulp magazines like Mask. Sadly, Chandler died in 1959, effectively depriving us of more classic Marlowe novels and stories. The shame of the whole thing is Chandler did not start writing until late in his life, although seeing how some great authors decline over the course of their careers perhaps it is best we only have a few novels from Raymond Chandler.
"The Big Sleep" finds Marlowe in the employ of General Sternwood, a wealthy but dying oil tycoon. Sternwood wants Marlowe to track down a blackmailer who is trying to bleed some money out of the old general. The problem is Sternwood's two daughters, Carmen and Vivian. Both women have major problems; Carmen is just plain weird, suffering from seizures and a penchant for sleeping around with scum of the earth types. Vivian is not much better; she is a heavy gambler who dates (and marries) mob types. In the course of working the case, Marlowe uncovers underground pornography shops, blackmailers, gambling dens, a couple of murders, and other seedy events in the growing town of Los Angeles. Like other Chandler novels, what we initially see is hardly the whole enchilada. While working the case, Marlowe stumbles on deeper and deeper mysteries involving a missing mobster and his abducted wife.
While "The Big Sleep" is Chandler's best known work, it is not his best novel. It seems that Chandler is still working out the style and form later expressed so gallantly in "The Long Goodbye." "The Big Sleep" is classic Chandler; there is plenty of the gritty atmosphere, amusing wordplay and slang, and despicable characters found in Chandler's later novels. The problem with "The Big Sleep" is that the story does not hold together well. Far too often, I found myself wondering why things happened the way they did, or I had trouble following the twists and turns of the case.
Even a somewhat confusing story line does not cause much damage to the entertainment value of "The Big Sleep." You still get the classic snappy dialogue between Marlowe and everyone he encounters, and that is always fun to read. Even more exciting is the realization that you are reading the first book length effort from a master of noir fiction. You can see how he develops his technique by comparing this book with his later novels.
What is also amusing is seeing how Chandler paints L.A. at the end of the 1930's. By that time, Los Angeles had yet experienced the enormous growth of the post World War II era. At one point, one of the characters in the book states that L.A. is still a growing town. You have to chuckle over Marlowe's discovery of a pornography shop operating with police protection-this in what is today the home of the pornography industry!
Any fans of Chandler will want to read "The Big Sleep" eventually, although I recommend starting with some of his later novels first. Nearly forty-five years after Chandler's death, there is still no one who can touch the master. That fact alone should convince anyone interested in crime novels to read everything Chandler ever wrote.
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on September 20, 2002
This book is from the era of the golden age of the detective movie. It's a black and white world full of deceit and double crosses. And if you just watch the movies from that time, there is a lot of passion, but no sex.
Now if you read books, like this excellent one, you can see that people were just as nasty and sensous when it comes to sex and we are now. And maybe they did it with a little more style, too.
The novel covers a case that involves pornography, so I guess they had that in those days, too. It covers a pair of rich young women who are as loose as one can imagine. People don't take their clothes off in the movies from that time, but they sure do in the book.
Ok, there's more to it than the above. If you read this book for the first time, and didn't know that much about the background, you might think it a bit cliched'. You have the wisecracking detective who has a smart line even when a gun it pointed at him. Heard this a lot of times before, right? Well, this is one of the original that had this style. And even if I've heard the type before, reading this book for the first time made me appreciate Raymond Chandler's style. Not only has it been copied countless times, but it stands up as a better work than many of it's imitators.
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on September 4, 2002
Perhaps the textbook from which all other modern thrillers are based, THE BIG SLEEP surprised me by being much more than just another tale of murder and deceit. Certainly there's a lot of villainy on display, and a lot of the fundamentals of the genre can be found within these pages. But it was Raymond Chandler's clever and distinct use of the language that kept me engrossed and interested.
The book is heavy in description and dialogue while being fairly light on introspection. But then, Philip Marlowe doesn't hang around thinking too much about his character, because that would cut into the time where he could be killin' an' drinkin' an' wise crackin'. The characters aren't especially deep, but they're certainly worth reading about. Chandler creates people who make up for in sheer griminess what they may lack in absolute realism. They're intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable.
I found it much more fun to read about the people themselves rather than concentrating on the exact minutiae of their actions, and it seems that Chandler took the same approach to writing. The plot is a little bit shaky at times and not everything quite adds up at the end of the book. But as an effective mood piece, such details are mere trivialities. The individual sequences are what make this a worthwhile piece of writing. The characters, the slick prose and the swagger all combine to make this a memorable work.
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on July 23, 2002
There isn't any question about where American noir fiction began: all fingers point to James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Likewise, there isn't any question about where the tough California P.I. novel started: the credit goes to Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON. But in 1939, a pulp magazine writer fused the two concepts, and the result is a style--street-smart, tough, witty, and compellingly direct--that belongs to one writer only: Raymond Chandler. And his first novel, THE BIG SLEEP, made him a household name.
In some respects THE BIG SLEEP is a problematic novel. The plot concerns detective Philip Marlowe's efforts to protect the wealthy Sternwood family from blackmail--but from this starting point it spins out into several complicated directions. Chandler manages this myriad of elements very well through the first half of the novel, but at mid-point the plot breaks apart into a series of loose ends and improbabilities from which it doesn't recover until the last fifty pages--and then only just. But that is almost beside the point. Thanks to Chandler's unique style, you simply can't put the book down long enough to criticize it.
THE BIG SLEEP reads with tremendous speed and power, creating a portrait of a seamy world ruled by bisexual pornographers, purring hitmen, cheap hoods, and enameled dames determined to have their way no matter what--a fascinating collection of everything small and mean and gutter common. At the same time, it also presents a surprising degree of integrity in the midst of the corruption: Marlowe won't sell out, no matter what the bribe, and behind their various masks the hardbitten Vivien Sternwood, mysterious Mona Mars, and small-time Harry Jones have enough courage, loyalty, and unexpected integrity to win your respect.
THE BIG SLEEP is not the perfect novel. But it is extremely, extremely readable, and with it Chandler paves the way for everything from Sue Grafton's popular mystery series to television crime drama. Chandler's voice here is often imitated, but it has been seldom equalled and never really bested, and both his style and THE BIG SLEEP remain as potent today as they were when the novel was first published. Strongly recommended.
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on July 11, 2002
Raymond Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP was the first of his novels featuring private detective Philip Marlowe. In creating this tough-as-nails, chain-smoking, heavy boozing investigator, Chandler was one of the first writers of the ''hardboiled" mystery genre. While its style has become a tradition over 60 years since it was first published, it is important to understand how original THE BIG SLEEP was. Literature had only seen before gentleman detectives such as Sherlock Holmes solving the mysteries of the genteel classes. THE BIG SLEEP, on the other hand, involves the seedy Los Angeles underbelly, with a cast of gamblers, con-men, and perverts.
The book opens with the visit of Philip Marlowe to the estate of old, dying General Sternwood. The general's two daughters constantly vex him by getting into all sorts of trouble. One's a infantile neurotic, the other's mired in gambling debts and has already been thrice married. Sternwood hires Marlowe to resolve the blackmail of one of his daughters by a shady bookseller. Once bodies start to drop, however, it becomes apparent that Marlowe is in for more than he bargained for.
In his Philip Marlowe novels, Chandler was more concerned with creating characters of various degrees of depravity, dialogue, and narrative style than with plot. In fact, only in the last three pages does he put all the pieces in place, in such a fashion that resolving the mystery seems like an afterthought. Nonetheless, the reader enjoys the ride. Marlowe's thoughts, which we get from the first-person narrative, and the witty dialogue is entertaining enough.
THE BIG SLEEP is also a window on a period of American history much different from the present. Nearly every scene has the characters lighting up, whether pipes, cigarettes, or cigars. In one scene, the police harass a homosexual boy with glee. In few other books do we see there sorts of details which show how Los Angeles of 1939 was not like it is today.
All in all, I'd recommend THE BIG SLEEP. Even if this doesn't seem like your genre, it has an important place in American literature.
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on December 8, 2001
This was Chandler's first novel, written when he was 51-years-old, although he had published a number of hard-boiled pulp fiction stories in the six years previous. The title refers to his hero, Philip Marlowe's idea of death. Not very original, but apt enough.
I read this to compare it to the famous Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall film directed by Howard Hawks released in 1946. The structure of the book and the movie are very similar, but there's a subtle difference in the characterizations that gives the movie and the novel an entirely different feel.
The movie is a romantic mystery with something like a happy ending. The novel is an existential slice of one man's life as a worldly wise straight-shooter in a corrupted world of thieves, murders, predatory females, and assorted grifters. In the movie the part of Vivian Regan, General Sternwood's older daughter, is prettied up and expanded for Lauren Bacall so that she and Bogey can work on the romantic chemistry. In the book romance takes a third tier seat to manliness, cynicism, and loyalty to the client. Indeed, Marlowe prefers Mona Mars, whom he calls "Silver-Wig," to Vivian. But what he prefers even more than any of the women who are constantly throwing themselves at him is hard liquor and nicotine. He drinks morning, noon and night, always hard stuff, whiskey, rye, brandy. He spends a lot of time lighting and smoking tobacco and describing others doing the same. He even smokes a pipe, as did Chandler himself. With prohibition just a bad memory, and lung cancer something ugly that happened to coal miners and old people, the mass American mind thought it sexy and oh so sophisticated to toss back a few and indulge in the ritual of the cigarette, a ritual for tough guys that included striking the stick match with a thumbnail, dangling the cigarette out of one side of the mouth while talking out of the other, or pausing to eye the babe before flipping open the Zippo. Such an innocent world it was then.
Chandler wrote the novel in a white heat from chapter one to #30 at the end of the text on the last page in about three months. He had intended to make a few bucks, this being just a longer short story, but a funny thing happened. His unconscious took over and Chandler ended up projecting not only a hauntingly atmospheric Los Angeles during the thirties and a reflection of the entire culture, but a nearly heroic notion about right and wrong personified in his alter ego, the shamus Philip Marlowe. Note above all that Marlowe is a highly moral person who doesn't take advantage of women, refuses money that doesn't belong to him, and is something close to fearless in the face of personal danger. In a short Introduction to the Modern Library Edition of this book, it is noted that when Chandler himself fell on hard times in 1912, he borrowed money from an uncle and made a badge of paying it back, "Every penny...with six percent interest." Chandler never imagined at the time that he was writing "literature." Indeed he would have scoffed at such a notion and pretended not to know what it is, just as Marlowe pretends not to have heard of Proust.
So perhaps the secret of Marlowe's appeal is that Marlowe is the man Chandler would be on his best days, an essentially honest man, a very worldly man, a courageous straight-shooter, loved by women and admired by men, a man who is true to himself and his code. The average reader and moviegoer could easily identify with such a man, and his character became a formula for success in the private eye genre for another four or five decades. One reviewer insightfully recalled the Harrison Ford character from Blade Runner (1982). I am thinking of James Garner's "Jim Rockford" in the long running--it's still running, actually, in between infomercials on channels with numbers in the fifties--"The Rockford Files," whose character bears more than a token resemblance to Chandler's creation.
Besides this creation of an existential hero, the other striking feature of Chandler's novel is the sharply observed first person narrative spun out by Marlowe, and his quick, hard-boiled wit. He was not only brave, but had an eagle's eye for detail and more street smarts than an alley cat, and a nasty habit of speaking his mind in a way that penetrated. He describes the characters with precision, right down to their tie pins, and the scenery with enough verisimilitude to spring it to life. ... His running analysis of the motives of others and his observations about himself are immediate and to the point.
There are of course contrivances. Marlowe does indeed seem to observe more than his fair share of action, and he seems to be where he should be nearly all the time. The scene (not in the movie) at the oil sump with Carmen near the end could never have been anticipated, not even by Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan working in tandem, and yet Marlowe did anticipate it, and was able to recreate an unlikely sequence of events to unravel the last mystery.
The Big Sleep is pulp fiction at the apex, a novel squarely between a fancy Bel Air hotel and a skid row flophouse, eagerly read by the clientele of both establishments.
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on April 4, 2000
Most people pick up this book knowing its prominent place in the lineage of crime fiction. I fell into this group, so I was expecting great things.
Let me just say out front that I had a difficult time finishing it, despite the fact that it is relatively short. I found the story to be lacking, the mystery all but solved halfway through, and not much impetus from the plot to keep me reading. As an originator and trailblazer, Chandler deserves ample credit for what came out of The Big Sleep, but I would be lying if I said it was anywhere near the engrossing and deftly-plotted read I was expecting.
One caveat to this, however: there are certain passages in this book where Chandler will simply blow your mind with the way he can conjure up scenes and reveal things about a character with his almost hypnotically sultry prose. On these occassions, which are dropped in here and there throughout, Chandler makes you a believer, and shows in a way few have before or since how sublimely evocative words can be in the hands of a master.
I know that it seems like I'm writing about two completely different novels here, but the distinction rings very true (for me, anyway). The story would rate 2 stars from me, but the filaments of magic woven throughout doubles its rating. Whether this is enough to warrant a reading is completely a matter of personal taste, but I would offer my tacit recommendation on the grounds that you've been warned what to expect.
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on August 22, 2002
The Big Sleep, one of those many tough guy sleuth detective stories which reminds one of Perry Mason, The Thin Man, and Colombo (..if he was placed in 1930s Los Angeles), is one of Raymond Chandler's better stories. Some of his Philipe Marlowe detective stories have very convoluted plots which make the stories almost incoherent. Fortunately this isn't the case with The Big Sleep.
Here our story is of a elderly, disabled rich man with wild and dangerous daughters. Philip Marlowe is hired to sort out a blackmail situation, but then finds himself pulled into the twisted lives of the two daughters, their boyfriends, and the criminal underworld. The story does hang together, and is generally plausible. Next to The Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep is my favorite Philipe Marlowe novel.
Bottom line: an above par Philipe Marlowe story. Recommended.
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on October 31, 2001
I'm not into detective stories, and I had never read Chandler before this; neither have I seen the movie. Did I like it? Yes, why not - it had a certain sense of style, a certain attraction, present in every comment by every character. As it comes to dialogue, this book has it all. That's easy to admit.
That much for the good sides, there were weak points too. Most of all Chandler's descriptions seemed to me somewhat showy and heavy. Also, the plot could've been more mesmerizing. Compared to other detective novels I have read in the past, this one might not do so well. Incredibly sophisticated plots always make me feel confused. Too much glamour in the plot seems like a desperate need to gain attention. But I'm pretty satisfied; it is very rare that 'a classic' turns out to this good.
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on October 31, 2001
I'm not into detective stories, and I had never read Chandler before this; neither have I seen the movie. Did I like it? Yes, why not - it had a certain sense of style, a certain attraction, present in every comment by every character. As it comes to dialogue, this book has it all. That's easy to admit.
That much for the good sides, there were weak points too. Most of all Chandler's descriptions seemed to me somewhat showy and heavy. Also, the plot could've been more mesmerizing. Compared to other detective novels I have read in the past, this one might not do so well. Incredibly sophisticated plots always make me feel confused. Too much glamour in the plot seems like a desperate need to gain attention. But I'm pretty satisfied; it is very rare that 'a classic' turns out to this good.
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