I finished reading “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler this morning. Despite the title, at no time during my reading of the book did I fall asleep. I never even considered it.
It is a classic detective novel, inhabited by a wide range of antagonists including common crooks, greedy extortionists, petty thieves, and insane rich girls. Nearly everyone smokes, and it’s obvious that no one smokes filtered cigarettes. Chandler took pains to describe the smoking of cigarettes and included flecks of tobacco on tongues, the clinging of cigarettes to characters’ lower lips, and other events that could only take place during the smoking of non-filtered cigarettes.
Other details in the novel succeed in dating it. One of the crooks is involved in the selling of “smut books.” This vice was a big deal in 1939 and was associated with organized crime. Automobiles are started with a key and a starter button. Automobile registration is kept in a holder strapped to the steering column. Tires have inner tubes.
If you enjoy simple plots and organization in novels, leave this book alone. Halfway through it I was so confused by the number of characters and relationships between them that I gave up on trying to figure it all out. The action kept me interested though, regardless of who was being murdered and who might have had motives for doing it. The narrator and main character, Philip Marlowe, is a tough private detective with a strong work ethic, an obsession with simile and metaphor, an amazing ability to keep his composure in the presence of naked women, and an unusually female-like ability to take notice of wardrobe and interior design details.
Dialogue is eminently enjoyable in this book. Chandler was a master at the short, bursty repartee that you might imagine would take place between characters short on education and long on cynicism. You just never know what to expect when an interchange begins, especially when some of the characters display symptoms of psychosis and other forms of instability. I was surprised to see profanity in this book. Although the F bomb was not dropped literally, it was implied in the phrase “Go ———- yourself.” I suppose some might insert “wash” or “educate” where the long dash is, but, having the corrupt mind that I do, I’m pretty sure I know what Chandler intended.
“The Big Sleep” was made into a movie for the first time in 1946 and starred Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as the female lead. Because of rules and standards in the movie industry in that period, most of the explicit sexual content of the novel was toned down or completely eliminated. The movie, though, is considered a classic and has been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U. S. Library of Congress and it has been added to the National Film Registry.
The book is the first of a series of stories starring Chandler’s character Philip Marlowe. Since the story is told entirely by Marlowe, it is impossible not to form opinions of his story-telling skill, his analyses of the other characters, his philosophies concerning his profession and of life, and his personal habits. He drinks, he wise-cracks, he insults others, and he seems to have a penchant for disrespecting the ladies, although he does not seem to be an outright misogynist. He is, however, a very good detective with high standards and an admirable work ethic. In short, he gets the job done and doesn’t give a damn how you feel about him.
Sometimes I wish I could be more like Philip Marlowe. I would never, however, disrespect the ladies.