Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP is one of the BBC’s ‘100 novels that shaped our world’ and as I have been a crime fiction fan since reading Enid Blyton, I really should have read this before. However, Lockdown has pushed me to read it and I am glad that I did.
This is Chandler’s first full-length novel, and introduces the wise-cracking gumshoe/shamus/PI Philip Marlowe and the mean streets of Los Angeles. Published in 1939, it is said the past is a different country...well so at times is the language. I read whilst not understanding many words at times, such is the difference in vernacular and slang, and yet, it is as if I have seen a [black and white] movie such is the vivid nature and descriptive beauty of the writing.
The plot, a combination of two of Chandler’s earlier short stories, revolves around the wealthy Sternwood family, who have made their money through oil (like the Ewing family in ‘Dallas’ but even more dysfunctional). The ailing patriarch, the General, hires Marlowe to investigate what appears to be a blackmail attempt concerning his younger daughter. This investigation leads Marlow into a web of blackmail, jealousy, grifters, sleazy hotels and murders and then when he settles that case, he takes it on himself to solve another related case – the disappearance of one of the other Sternwoods. This culminates in a memorable confrontation in the pouring rain. And a meeting with a woman “so platinumed that her hair shone like a silver fruit bowl”.
THE BIG SLEEP contains some wince-inducing misogyny and homophobia nonetheless it is well worth a read just to see how far we have come, what Hollywood was like eighty years ago, and to meet Philip Marlowe, an honourable man who mostly does the right thing.