The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler
The first book in the Philip Marlowe series (though not the first I’ve read) this blackly funny story of the darker side of LA confirmed my love for Chandler and his purple prose. I read it for book club, which led to a hilariously highbrow conversation about what has never aspired to be more than pulp fiction. But it’s good pulp fiction.
The plot is…complicated. I was beginning to think I had missed something towards the end and then Marlowe explains the whole thing to another character, which I suspect his publisher made him put in there. The story begins with the private detective being hired by dying millionaire Sternwood to deal with a pesky blackmailer. It seems straightforward but one bad guy leads to another and Sternwood’s two daughters are both troublesome, turning it all into one big knot of murder and intrigue.
Marlowe himself is an intriguing character. He’s a good guy and has a strong moral code that he imposes on himself, yet he delights in pissing off the police or letting people believe that he’s up to no good. And he’s not above kissing a girl and then discarding her. He’s clever, but not so clever that he’s pieced it all together from the start. He gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude but looking closely at his actions you realise he actually cares very much. As he explains to Sternwood, “I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.”
Chandler’s LA is of course marvellously seedy. Even the rich Sternwood girls are caught up with gangsters and crooks, from the petty to the top of the pile. It is his (and by extension Marlowe’s) understanding of the criminal world, and how several seemingly distinct cases are tied up together by the associations between people, that makes the book brilliant and confusing.
And it’s funny. Marlowe’s narration is full of sharp observations and ironic humour. I love lines like “You have to keep your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The language in general is gorgeously overblown, which is a style some members of my book club found offputting. But I can’t help adoring a book that sets a scene: “I got down there about nine, under a hard high October moon that lost itself in the top layers of a beach fog.”
For a book written in the 1930s, there is an interesting attitude towards homosexuality. Marlowe uses language that would be considered homophobic today but elsewhere he appears open-minded about such things. When joking about his impending death, he says “Don’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?”
I think I preferred Farewell My Lovely, but this was still a great read and I fully intend to read the rest of the series.
First published 1939 by Alfred A Knopf.