The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

“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”

Yes, I went out of my comfort zone!  The Big Sleep is not a book I would usually choose to read, but since it’s on my Guardian 1000 list and a group on Goodreads was reading it for June, I decided to take the plunge.  Initially, I was rather apprehensive because I had read The Maltese Falcon a few years ago and didn’t enjoy it.  Yet within a few pages, I was completely immersed in this story.

Philip Marlowe; private detective; wise guy.  L.A. in the late 1930s.  A millionaire with two wild, uncontrollable daughters.  A missing son-in-law. Can Marlowe navigate the perilous world of high-society, which takes him into the shady dens of gangsters, gambling and murder, to extract truth from a myriad of lies?

With Marlowe was born one of the first of the new detectives.  The description he gives of himself in the beginning of the novel is a dry, witty sketch:

“I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s a demand for it.  There isn’t much in my trade.  I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once.  His chief investigator, a man named Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me.  I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives …………. I was fired.  For insubordination.  I test very high on insubordination, General.”

Los Angeles City Hall (1931)
source Wikipedia

The Big Sleep euphemistically refers to death and there are more than a few murders in this tale.  Billed as Chandler’s first novel, it is actually two of his short stories combined:  The Curtain and Killer in the Rain.  In it, he sets the scene with a flourishing skill:

“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom.  The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants.  The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank.  The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.”

Curiously, while this is a mystery novel, Chandler often seems more concerned with the setting and characters than the minute details of the plot. Scenes are depicted with meticulous detail, and the characters each have personalities that radiate out, like the beacon of a lighthouse cutting through the mist.  Their charm, or helplessness, or audacity, or coquettishness is distinct and compelling.  In fact, the producer of the movie, The Big Sleep, contacted Chandler to remind him that in the novel, he had never revealed who had killed the chauffeur and asked for the identity of the murderer. Chandler replied that he had no idea.

 I really admired Philip Marlowe’s brash confidence, his raw sense of humour and his composure in dangerous situations.  Often impolitic and impertinent, nevertheless his understanding of human nature and the complexity of people’s personalities, made him a lively, compelling character.  With this work, Chandler managed to avoid the cliche 1930s male detective and invented a character and a book worth reading.  Very enjoyable!