When a case of blackmail involving the daughter of a California millionaire leads to murder, the inimitable Philip Marlowe is stirred into action as he becomes embroiled in a troublesome case of extortion complicated by kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder.
The back cover touts Chandler's prose as "muscular" and I think that is the perfect description. It isn't graceful or elegant, and sometimes it's repetitive and too heavily laden with similes. But the similes are vivid and create a very distinct mood: dark, watchful, stoic. Detached.
One idea I found striking is the underlying theme that all people are pretty much morally bankrupt, that everyone is either a monster or a victim, and all of us have made ethical compromises along the way. To put it another way, we all have ulterior motives and are on a downward spiral. This unrelenting cynicism is the Christian doctrine of the depravity of man, but without the hope of redemption. There are a few halfway-heroes in the story like Harry Jones and Mona Grant, little points of light on a dark noir background. But they are swallowed up quickly and we're alone in the dark again.
Chandler describes the physical appearance of his characters in detail, but sometimes there is a lack of description I found tantalizing. For example, he presents the narrator Philip Marlowe as enigmatic, capable, cold, with never a hint of how the character became that way. What's his history? Often Marlowe gives a straight, emotionless description of a shocking event, completely leaving out any commentary on his personal response to the scene. He's like a machine, efficient and calculating. But he seems to do the right thing most of the time and it's hard to dislike him — the little we know of him, anyways.
Because Marlowe narrates the story, we see all the other characters through his eyes. The allegations of misogyny directed at this book and others like it aren't entirely baseless. The women are all described elaborately in terms of their physical appearance and sex appeal; that is their primary identity, at least to Marlowe. Of the four female characters in this story, two are reprehensibly selfish and/or crazy, one is a rather pathetic opportunist, and the last is weak and willfully blind to the sins of her husband. No, they don't fare well, but no one really does in the noir world.
Apparently The Big Sleep is just the first in a series featuring Philip Marlowe, and I think I'll look up the sequels. This is definitely not a genre for younger readers; the content, though not raunchy, can be somewhat explicit at times, and the events of the plot aren't G-rated. But for an excursion into a tone and style completely different from my usual reading and as an example of its genre, The Big Sleep is excellent. And there is a strange magnetism to the hopeless darkness of Marlowe's world. Maybe I want to keep reading to find out if redemption is ever possible; maybe I just want to know more about Marlowe's back story. In any case, this was a strong read and I can see why it has been so foundational to today's detective fiction.
A thoroughly enjoyable novel from one of the instigators of the hard-boiled detective stories that now seem to abound on the mystery section of bookshops. It will be interesting to compare with Dashell Hammett's Maltese Falcon when I eventually get around to reading that. Great fast paced pulp fiction full of one-liners that refreshed some of the bleakness of the situations that Marlowe found himself facing.
“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand
means a world by the tail.”
“I’m not a tough guy - just careful. I don’t know hell’s first whisper about you.”
Private Investigator Phillip Marlowe is hired by the patriarch of a extremely wealth family to look into a few matters for him and before he is through investigating all the different angles, he’s come across blackmail, murder, and two sisters who keep him hopping.
“You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women.”
This was my first Raymond Chandler book and I enjoyed every minute with the iconic P.I. Phillip Marlowe. An intricate plot, the dark and moody setting, and the above mentioned stylized writing really help to define The Big Sleep as the classic noir novel that it is.
"The Big Sleep" is THE ultimate hardboiled noir crime novel. A style Chandler perfectionised like nobody else - and numerous others have tried to copy or have been influenced by.
“Tall, aren't you?" she said.
"I didn't mean to be."
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.”
Dark alleys, smoke-filled bars, tempting femme fatales, excessive daytime drinking - Chandler sets the atmosphere perfectly. And I enjoyed the dialogue a lot. Fast, hardhitting, cynic and very funny. I chuckled a lot. I guess these selected quotes says it all. You get it. If you don’t, forget about Chandler.
“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”
“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it.
The book has a 'film noir' and 'femme fatale' feel to it. The plot is intricate and gripping. The only thing I object to is the American consumerist approach. You feel that the author is constantly selling you the sights and sounds of the country, trying to lure you. Thanks but no thanks.
“I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”
“I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”
“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. “I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”
“There’s been a lot of killing going on around me,” I said. “I haven’t been getting my share of it.”
This thing was absolutely choked with similes and I didn’t mind the lack of oxygen. Sinewy, smart and swaggering with its head and eyes set squarely forward. Sometimes with books this pervasive, I get bored halfway through. Imitators are legion, but they only usually copy the attitude and violence, skipping the atmosphere for flamboyant characters and gory acts instead of populating that world with warm-blooded, cool-headed beings eyestrained on the ever-churning cycle of that horror. It’s no wonder they turned this into a classic movie. It’s no surprise to me that the book is better
I find that fans of straight mystery novels don't enjoy Chandler's works as much as others; the convoluted plots full of double-crosses and long-shots tend to defy traditional logic, resulting in dubious conclusions and the occasional loose end. The Big Sleep actually contains the perfect example of the latter, as it is never clearly explained - or indeed, even known by the author - who killed the Chauffeur. Most mystery fans prefer air tight solutions that show meticulous attention to detail, and look at leftover issues like this as lazy craftsmanship.
Of course, the reason for all of this is that the mystery isn't really the story. Raymond Chandler's true interest is in the players, not the game. Philip Marlowe is an enigmatic character, a lone private detective who seemingly drifts unattached through the high and low ends of L.A. society, an aloof spectator who seems to leave a wake of chaos when he actually attempts to get involved in the affairs of others. The schemes and alliances of everyone from high society down through the criminal underground may seem archaic to the reader, but they are almost as confounding to us as the human element is to Marlowe, as his own personal code of ethics - some may even call it warped chivalry - is constantly at odds with everyone he confronts. I've always found that the scene between Marlowe and his client's younger daughter Carmen at his apartment perfectly encapsulates this fractured relationship between him and society. Entering his apartment to find the playfully crazy Carmen naked in his bed, Marlowe tells her to get dressed and attempts to ignore her by studying a chess puzzle already set nearby. During his multiple attempts to reason with Carmen, Marlowe at one point examines the chessboard and, replacing a move, muses that "Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights." It isn't that Marlowe isn't the only one playing a game in The Big Sleep, but he seems to be the only one interested in why the pieces move the way they do, and one of the few looking beyond the board.
I could stretch the chess metaphor for three or four more paragraphs. Honest. The point is that novels like The Big Sleep are, like the title itself, about far more than solving a mystery. Through Marlowe, Chandler exposes the human condition in all of its illogical and unfathomable ugliness, with the full realization that there most likely is no real solution. Marlowe's chess puzzle remains unsolved, and even the solution of the case is not revealed to anyone for whom it might make a difference. It's this existential undertone that separates classic crime noir like The Big Sleep from your standard whodunit, and the mesmerizing dilemma of the human condition that guarantees the book's place in literary history, in spite of any flaws.
I could not put it down. I loved it, and am greedy for more!
Anyway, it gets five stars because the style kept on making me sit up and take notice, over and over again. I thought it was amazing. It's in first person, so all the imagery -- which seems pretty fresh to me, reading it now, years after it was published, and was probably even fresher back when it was first published -- adds to character as well. I should have noted down more of the lines I liked, but so many struck me.
Getting a couple more of Raymond Chandler's books.
I'm really glad I'm taking this Crime Fiction class.
This is the first hard-boiled mystery I've read, and I was pleasantly surprised. Chandler's writing style is very engaging, and his voice remains unique, even after all these years. In his sparse prose, Chandler precisely evokes the noir world he's describing, whether it's the lavishly decorated bedroom of a poor rich girl or a foggy Los Angeles night. Marlowe himself is always ready with a quip as he follows the leads and his hunches through the LA underworld, where the ground is littered with the corpses of red herrings. Although I find it hard to believe that he really did manage that miraculous escape and rescue while handcuffed, I loved Marlowe's character, the lone guy with his own code of ethics operating in a world where pretty much everyone is tainted. It's fun to read a novel that generated so many tropes and see where they came from. I enjoyed my initial foray into classic noir.
Read for the 2014 Mystery Category Challenge (2014).
In reading, I followed the case step by step, but if at the end I had to retrace the route it took, I don't think I could, having gotten tangled in the complexity. However, in reading Raymond Chandler, the joy is certainly in the journey, not the destination. He certainly knows how to spin his similes, and the setting of an L.A. with streetcars and interurban tracks, citrus groves landscaping Pasadena, and creaking oil derricks dotting the horizon, with hard-talking hoods and with corruption at all levels is classic.
Loved the ride!
Seriously - Chandler was an original with a fantastic knack for setting the "feel" of a scene. His style is easy to read but doesn't feel stripped down like Hemingway. Yes, reading it now, it does seem dated (his treatment of women, for example... and that everyone smokes) but it's not only a great read but an important mark for fiction of the 20th century.
Chandler in this novel did a lot to define noir and hard-boiled detective fiction, from the cynical smark aleck first person voice to the setting of Los Angeles to the dangerous women of easy virtue. There is plenty of evocative sensory details, lots of atmosphere, and I felt as if I were watching a film unfold before my eyes.
However, I also found it wasn't a style that wore well. It seemed too easy to imitate and satirize--there isn't a simile Chandler didn't like and boy does it rain a lot in his version of sunny California.
Philip Marlowe didn't wear well on me either. Cold and cynical even describing moments of great drama, he shows nothing but contempt for women--who are throwing themselves at him within minutes of meeting him--or at least three out of four. Poor gals, because as he puts it himself, "Women make me sick," which I guess explains his propensity to slap them around. Not that he's not a "real" man--oh no, I mean out of his mouth come words like "queen," "fairy" and "fag" so you can't think he's that. Even given the era, I find it hard not to see the character's misogyny and homophobia as repugnant, and Marlowe's twisted sense of honor doesn't do anything for me.
So although I'm rather glad I read this to get a sense of a character and style as important to the the mystery genre as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, I can't see reading more of the Philip Marlowe novels.
The Big Sleep was middle-aged Raymond Chandler's first novel and the introduction of Philip Marlowe to the world. According to the little intro. in my library's paperback copy, Chandler wrote only seven novels and a collection of short stories in his lifetime yet ace detective Philip Marlowe, thanks to Hollywood, is ingrained in my consciousness. I knew him although I'd never really met him. Even though I had never - when I picked up the book - seen Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, it didn't stop me from imagining Bogey as Philip Marlowe, so I got to live a few days with Humphrey Bogart's voice in my head. OK by me.
So-called "hard boiled" detective Philip Marlowe is sent to meet with wealthy, elderly and paralyzed General Sternwood who wants Marlowe's P.I. skills to deal with a blackmailer. The book begins with Marlowe's trip to meet the General at his Hollywood mansion for the first time. "I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars." Before going in to meet the General, we get a good account from Marlowe on what a four million dollar mansion looks like. When he spots a stained-glass panel of a knight trying to rescue a naked lady with "very long and convenient hair" tied to a tree he says "he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying." Marlowe agrees to take Sternwood's case and Sternwood's little blackmail mystery leads to more convoluted mysteries. The body count rises, the plot thickens as the pages turn, and our intrepid hero finds himself in the middle of a tangled web of blackmail, pornography, murder, shady characters and cover-ups. Marlowe needs to not only solve the case but keep from becoming a victim.
Marlowe is more than up to the task. He seems to be able to know right away when someone is trying to play him and doesn't fall for anybody's (male or female) manipulative tricks. Our shamus here is as clever as a fox, able to think about two or three steps ahead of everybody. He has to walk a fine line of keeping certain information from the police due to his loyalty to General Sternwood, after all it's Sternwood he's working for, while keeping them on his side. Or at least off his back. He needs to do the same with some shady mob-like characters so he can stay alive. There are a few close calls for Marlowe here. Quite a few times he finds himself at the wrong end of a gun. He also, of course, has to deal with the feminine wiles of both Sternwood sisters who are trying to find out what exactly their rich daddy has hired him to do. The youngest is ditzy and naive and the oldest is very worldly and sure of herself. One night he finds himself alone in his car with the elderly Sternwood sister: She turned her body a little away from me as if to peer out of the window. Then she let herself fall backwards, without a sound, into my arms. ... "Hold me close, you beast," she said." (That last line cracks me up.) After fighting big sister off - somewhat reluctantly - he goes home only to find ditzy little sister waiting for him. "The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night."
We travel all around the Los Angeles and Hollywood area with Marlowe as he works on solving the case(s). Chandler does a pretty decent job of describing the places in and around L.A. where Marlowe travels and the characters Marlowe meets. The author also uses rain quite a bit to paint a pretty gloomy picture. If you didn't know any better, you would think it does nothing but rain in Los Angeles. This certainly would be a perfect book to read on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Philip Marlowe is a great character who I liked right from page one and the mysteries were a bit complex and not that easily solved. It was fun to try to make the connections between one mystery to another (i.e. one murder to another). This is not only a "who done it" but "why" and "how does this relate to everything else" mystery. The reader has access to Marlowe's private thoughts but we still have to wait until the end for Philip Marlowe to fill us in on the cases' solution. While I probably wouldn't put this book on my list of all time favorites, I enjoyed it quite a bit and will probably read another Raymond Chandler book one of these days. This was his first novel which makes me curious to see how his writing may have changed and/or improved with his subsequent novels.
This book is one of the defining ones for noir mysteries and as such, it hits pretty much every known trope of the subgenre. But being the originator of those tropes means that the book does it a way that comes across as fresh. I absolutely loved Chandler’s writing style – it came across as simple and easy, flowing smoothly for a quick read, yet it was also dense and poetic, even flowery at times with its descriptions. Nonetheless, the characters and plots don’t suffer for all this. Indeed, we learn as much, if not more, about each character through their dialogue as opposed to a lengthy description. And the plot has plenty of twists and action-filled scenes, with bullets flying, poisons ingested, and so forth.
Obviously the most notable character in this book is that of Philip Marlowe himself, who narrates the book in first person. He’s not the most introspective character per se, so we learn about him on the fly through his actions and a few things he tells other characters. Marlowe has a past working with law enforcement but found he’s better suited at being his own boss. He stays true to his own morals and sense of justice. He’s tough as nails, remaining calm and not afraid no matter what the situation is – even if he’s been held at gunpoint. Marlowe also has a way with words, throwing out witty quips at a moment’s notice that help to lighten the mood of an otherwise dark and gritty tale. And Marlowe’s apparently irresistible to all women, as nearly every woman he encounters ends up throwing herself at him, in one of the few truly eye-rolling things about this book. All in all, he’s a character that’s got a mysterious air about him yet somehow feels almost like an “everyman.” Marlowe is definitely the kind of character that makes sense to have a series built around him, as there’s plenty beneath the surface to explore.
The plot of the book can be described as multi-layered or convoluted, depending on how you want to look at it. There’s definitely a lot of moving pieces to keep track of as there are actually multiple mysteries and a large cast of characters. That does keep it interest though; unlike some mystery books where you find yourself figuring out “whodunit” way too early on, you are constantly on your toes here as each new crime lands in Marlowe’s lap. Indeed, even though I had already been exposed to the story in the past (and in the recent past, at that), I found myself still being surprised along the way as I did not remember all of the reveals.
An interesting thing about this book was how surprisingly fresh it felt. There are definitely many things in the book that are a product of its time, including the way women are depicted. The basic plot line itself is pretty much obsolete in our modern era, with the setting off point being a naked photograph sold on the sly. Still, the book didn’t feel dated as a whole and reading it didn’t seem very different than reading or watching a contemporary noir mystery. It was a strange sensation to have this revelation, but I think it’s a testament to Chandler’s writing skills.
For the audiophile – I read the audio book version narrated by actor Elliott Gould, with whom I was surprisingly impressed. He did an excellent job with the various voices and kept the pacing of the book just right.
All in all, I was impressed with this book and will definitely be looking into other Chandler books in the future.
If you like the crime noir and detective stories, then you've probably already read this genre-defining book.
Good, wasn't it?