Long before the hard-boiled detective of fiction and film became a cliché, Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was writing some of the finest crime novels of the twentieth century. His famous private eye protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is the narrator of most of his books, including “Farewell, My Lovely”, “The Lady in the Lake”, and “The Big Sleep”. The latter, published in 1939, was Chandler’s first novel.
In “The Big Sleep”, set in Los Angeles, Marlowe is hired by a wealthy invalid named General Sternwood. He wants Marlowe to investigate and stop a blackmail scheme that is being directed against his family. But what begins as a fairly simple case soon develops into a complex murder mystery that involves the General’s two daughters, Carmen and Vivian—“both pretty and both wild”. The blackmailer himself is shot dead almost as soon as Marlowe begins his investigation. Soon afterward an employee of the Sternwood household also turns up dead.
It is evident almost from the first page that the author of this work was totally at home with his material. However, it is not the intricacies of the plot that draws me to “The Big Sleep” (or to Chandler’s fiction generally). What I like most is the voice of the narrator: his unaffected tone of coolness and the ease with which he describes the dark world he inhabits. He is tough but not hardhearted; he is decent without being self-righteous. His sardonic wit is another remarkable and entertaining trait: ‘Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the sidewalk. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places’; or this exchange with one of the General’s daughters, whose romantic advances the detective calmly spurns:
“Men have been shot for little things like that, Marlowe.”
“Men have been shot for practically nothing.”
At times the first-person descriptions attain a gritty and poetic beauty: ‘I braked the car against the curb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel. Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.’
There have been, in movies and in books, innumerable attempts to do what Chandler did. Most of these attempts have resulted in bad or weak imitations. Certain writers seem to think they can actually improve on Chandler by ramping up the cynicism and the sleaze. But because Chandler was not only a realist but a consummate artist, he possessed a sound sense of scale. Evil is vividly depicted in “The Big Sleep”, but the author never lapses into excess. The result is a very enjoyable read, even for readers who are not big fans of mystery or detective fiction.