Review of The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler Introduces Philip Marlowe
Hired to end a blackmailing scheme, Marlowe is drawn into a world of pornographers, gamblers, and killers-for-hire in Depression Era Los Angeles.
General Sternwood’s problems revolve around his two young, wild daughters. Vivian’s ex-bootlegger husband has disappeared—presumably with another man’s wife—and Carmen’s thrill-seeking has gotten her tangled up with pornographers and blackmailers. Marlowe takes the case to help out the old general, but finds himself in over his head as bodies start piling up and the general’s daughters cause more trouble than he can deal with at any one time.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the multiple mysteries. There is the surface scenario of Marlowe trying to put an end to Carmen being blackmailed. While this would be enough for any good detective yarn, there is also the unsolved case of Vivian’s missing husband. Though he is never asked to look into it, most people assume this is the real case Marlowe is investigating and treat him differently because of it, including other criminals and the police. In time Marlowe gets caught up in this case too, though it appears to be barely related to the original case involving the blackmailer.
Beyond the plot mysteries is the mystery of Marlowe. Though he is the protagonist and the narrator, his motives and personality remain obscure to the reader and only become clearer over time and often in subtle ways. For instance, when examining a chess puzzle he takes back a move from a knight and thinks “Knights had no meaning in this game” (156). The comment carries through the whole novel as Marlowe acts with surprising decency and tact when the world around him is full of gangsters, ingrates, and conscienceless killers. Marlowe and a few other characters are trying to have dignity in a world that often appears amoral if not one that rewards wickedness.
On the weak side, the text has several instances of stumbling prose or repetitions of words close together that cannot be dismissed as the narrative voice or as a part of the author’s style. Likewise, since Marlowe and his thoughts are closely guarded even from the reader the text is occasionally required to explain certain events in long expositional dialogues.
Despite these few minor faults Chandler creates an evocative setting of Los Angeles in the early Twentieth Century and its unseemly world of fast money, an obsession with controlling publicity, disillusion and nihilistic youths, and other dark aspects of the American Dream. Marlowe becomes such an interesting character this setting because of his incongruity with it.
Chandler’s iconic characters, his style—terse yet rich in metaphors—and his ear for plausible jargon that fleshes out the characters and their setting have attracted enough admirers to make him a touchstone for other authors writing literary stories involving detectives. Elements Chandler pioneered can be seen in James Crumley’s fiction like The Wrong Case, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and even in The Big Lebowski by Joel and Ethan Cohen.
Marlowe is on the Case
The Big Sleep is an excellent read for both fans of detective stories, newcomers to the genre, or anyone curious about the origins of contemporary mystery novels. Chandler keeps everything fresh and on the move with generally good pacing. This novel marks an excellent start for the careers of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe.
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992.
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© 2010 Seth Tomko