The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler (1939)
I know this isn’t my usual genre to read but a couple of factors led to my giving it a go recently. Firstly, I got a bunch of Raymond Chandler books for Christmas about two years ago and never got around to reading them (happens more than I’d like – stupid life getting in the way of my reading!). Secondly, I’ve been a huge fan of Harry Dresden for many years now and thought I should take a look at the type of detective fiction that inspired characters like that (the downside of that being that all through this book I was waiting for Philip Marlowe to bust out some magic!).
The book opens with our (anti-) hero taking a job for the wealthy General Sternwood. His younger daughter Carmen is being blackmailed by a man named Geiger and his older daughter Vivian’s husband Rusty has disappeared. Marlowe, with a little genuine sympathy and a lot of cynical indifference, takes on the job to investigate the blackmailer. All simple enough, until Marlowe discovers that Geiger is at the centre of a pornography racket, and a simple blackmailing case gets him tangled up with multiple murders.
Now, I know that this book is one of those ones that keeps getting voted one of the best books ever but in all honesty, I didn’t really enjoy it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never really been into this sort of detective fiction and I’ve been spoiled by the Dresden books, but I was never that engaged by the story or the character. Marlowe, smart-talker, hard-drinker, deep-thinking tough-guy, has plenty about him to make him an appealing character, but I never felt connected with him myself, and we don’t really get to know anybody else that well.
As for the story it was good in some ways that it kept you guessing as to what happens next, but it wasn’t a plot where I felt I just had to keep reading to find out what happens next. As a rule I have at least 2 books on the go at any one time; my breakfast book and my lunchtime book. The breakfast book gets read, shockingly, in the morning and is occasionally picked up at the weekend, while my lunchtime book lives in work and is read, ironically enough, at lunchtime. You can tell the good books because they will transcend their allotted timeslot, ie if I’m reading a new Harry Dresden or ASOIAF book I’ll happily carry it back and forth to work and read it at the weekend because I’m that hooked into the story. The Big Sleep stayed on the breakfast table and wasn’t picked up at all at the weekend (tantalising glimpse into my life there!).
OK, let’s take a look at some of the good points of this book. One thing I did enjoy, and wish there was more of, were the action scenes (even if Marlowe does seem to have a casual disregard for the danger of firearms…). The way he describes the fighting is technical without being dull and demonstrates well that Marlowe is either well-trained or very experienced and as an MA fan, I liked that. The use of the term ‘chancery’ earned him a bonus point!
Marlowe’s lack of any real attempt to be heroic was also good and would probably have been quite innovative at the time of initial publication. Having grown up with films full of rogue-ish anti-heroes I’m probably a bit jaded by now, but taken in context this character would have been very interesting. Another good point is the detail that Chandler goes into with the locations, showing that Marlowe has an intimate familiarity with his town (seeing where you get it from Harry…)
As to the first-person style, that went into my ‘either pro or con’ column. Some people might find it odd and when I first read books of this style, I did as well, but as a Dresden veteran I am well-used to it by now and actually quite liked its use here. It just fit the story and the character very well.
Right, on to the negatives. I know some people like it but the cliché-type dialogue got to me a bit. Saying out loud things like;
‘he’s a dead little bird now, with his feathers ruffled and his neck limp and a pearl of blood on his beak.’
Just doesn’t sit well with me. Even if you have a somewhat melodramatic inner monologue, I can’t think of anybody who would actually talk like this. To me it detracted from the story more than it added to it, reminding you that what you’re reading about isn’t real.
At the risk of sounding overly PC (and as a lover of Flashman, I can assure you I’m not easily offended), I also wasn’t too keen on the repetitive homophobia. I know the book is a product of its time, but you don’t see Robert Graves saying that ‘a pansy has no iron in his bones’. After the initial guilty chuckle when you think ‘he actually said that?’ you tend to feel a little uncomfortable – or at least, I did.
I have to say I also found the female characters quite annoying, both those we were meant to find annoying (Carmen) and those we were meant to either like or sympathise with (Vivian, Agnes, Silver Wig). Marlowe seems to have little patience for women of any kind and so either the characters were dull or else he thinks that they are – either way they didn’t come across as interesting.
The plot, though well thought out and intricate, was definitely confusing at some points when the lines of the story seemed to weave back and forth. In all likelihood this is exactly what makes it a good read for some people, but it just didn’t keep my attention. I love complex books – ASOIAF and Dresden being obvious examples – but they have to keep my interest as well, and this one didn’t. By the time I got to 2/3 of the way through, I really didn’t care who killed the chauffer or whether Rusty was still alive or not.
Overall, if it weren’t for the sake of being able to say; ‘Yes, I’ve read that’ and the little joys of going; ‘that’s a bit like Harry,’ or, ‘that’s a bit like Marcone’, I’d say I regretted reading this. No doubt there are millions out there who would argue with me but this is my site and it’s my opinions I’m sharing, and for me this just wasn’t fun to read. To a fan of the genre it is probably something sacred but to the casual reader, I have to say I was unimpressed.