A review of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler
Hamish Hamilton
26 March 2009, Hardcover: 272 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0241144497

The Big Sleep is one of five novels reissued this year with their original (UK) hardback covers, in commemoration of the fifty years since Raymond Chandler’s death. One should note that the covers have been ‘sprayed’ or ‘painted’ on – the books don’t have dust jackets – but these are nonetheless attractive editions and are relatively inexpensive.

Chandler was something of a latecomer to the hard-boiled genre, curious though that seems today considering his preeminence. This, The Big Sleep, was his first novel and it came out in 1939. To set it in historical context, Hammett had published his first Continental Op story (‘Arson Plus’) in Black Mask in 1923, some sixteen years before. Despite this delayed arrival, Chandler’s influence since has, quite clearly, been immense.

The Big Sleep retains its power, though it is impossible to read it now without calling to mind Howard Hawk’s 1946 film, or picturing Philip Marlowe as anyone other than Humphrey Bogart. However, the two are quite different beasts. The engine of the film is the romance between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood (played by Lauren Bacall), and the chemistry on screen between the two leads. But the novel is driven by quite another dynamic: Marlowe’s corrosive sense of moral obligation, his need to find Rusty Regan for General Sternwood. In the end, he cannot quite deliver, whether because of his own flaws and errors or because people disappoint him or because the world is corrupt: hence his melancholy. As for romance, there is not much of it about in the novel. Marlowe, in fact, is prone to the odd misogynistic sentiment:

I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee. You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.

Or again:

Three men dead … and the woman went riding off in the rain with my two hundred in her bag and not a mark on her.

And Chandler’s PI has a fair helping of homophobia in his make up too, with ‘fag’ being the preferred epithet. Others get a look in too, mind: ‘I took plenty of the punch … but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like’. Incidentally, one of the minor characters, Joe Brody, a grifter, is surely African-American, but he did not appear as such in Hawk’s movie.

Why should one read The Big Sleep today? Well, first there is the story: it is a thrilling ride. Then there is the quality of Chandler’s prose, his much vaunted style, which still impresses (though its downbeat and bathetic vibe is occasionally imitative of Hemingway). The penultimate paragraph here is maybe the best he ever wrote: a paean to death as a place of serenity and sanctuary, beyond the reach of evil and distress. (As an aside: Epicurus called death ‘morningless sleep’ and one wonders whether Chandler, who obtained a classical education at Dulwich College, was aware of this when he came to decide on the title of his first novel?)

Although written in the first person, the novel often does not feel like it because there are passages of near-objective description. One says ‘near’ here because embedded in these descriptions are judgement and poetic conception, especially in the similes. We know much of what Marlowe thinks feels as well as what he sees. Throughout, Marlowe’s voice is flippant, questioning, disdainful, it is the voice of someone who knows what the bourgeois values are, who can certainly play the game as well as any, but who knows too much to accept them wholesale. He has got his own code and applies it. And this has pretty much set the tone and template for the PI novel ever since.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com