The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
Marlow is summoned to Sternwood’s house in the Hollywood foothills on a dark, rainy, October evening. Carmen has racked up ‘gambling debts’ with Arthur Geiger, the owner of a bookshop of ‘exotic books’. Geiger is blackmailing Sternwood with some unsavoury photos of a drugged and naked Carmen. So far so sleazy. Meanwhile, Vivian’s husband ex-bootlegger Rusty Regan has mysteriously disappeared.
It’s the nonchalant, cynical tone, sharp-witted writing, and dark, seedy atmosphere which makes this book such a treat. Marlow is a misogynist (there are a lot of ladies legs to ogle here) and homophobic who wouldn’t have made it past any modern-day publishing committee. If you can forgive Chandler for that – he was writing nearly 75 years ago and didn’t know better – you’ll be rewarded with a clever plot and perfect sentences like these:
‘I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.
‘She gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes’
‘He sounded like a man who’d slept well and didn’t owe too much money.’
Chandler famously cut and pasted his novels from his short stories which occasionally resulted in some loose ends, plot wise (who killed the chauffeur?). But it doesn’t really matter. This still is a cracking good read.
The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler is published by Penguin, 256 pages.