If you love a good mystery novel – with a private eye who smokes too much, drinks too much, likes to comment on a lady’s legs (and calls them “gams”), but always gets the job done – you owe a debt of gratitude to Raymond Chandler.
The Big Sleep is Chandler’s first novel, published in 1939, and the first of several to feature private investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is everything you imagine when you think “private eye”. From a 21st century perspective, it’s easy to view him as something of a cliche but you have to remember that Marlowe is one of the originals. He’s big, brash, and not afraid to bend the rules to work for me. At the same time, he has a deeply buried heart of gold. He’ll protect his client, even the ones he doesn’t like, and he’ll do his best to protect the innocent. You can’t help but like him even if you’d never, ever want to deal with him in real life.
Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood in a possible blackmailing case. Sternwood has two daughters – Vivian, who was on her third husband when he went missing, and Carmen, who seems more animal than lady most of the time. They are wild, dangerous, and beautiful women. Chandler describes them with a seductive sort of appeal, overlayed by an uneasy feeling of creepiness. Carmen especially.
Marlowe’s investigations take him into a shop of lewd images, a strange house where two men live together, and to a suspicious suicide scene. (The words “pornography” or “homosexual” are never used but they’re well-implied.) Marlowe continuously bumps up against the mystery of Vivian’s husband’s disappearance – something everything thinks he is or should be investigating. A blackmail case turns into one murder, followed by another.
Overall, I found the case somewhat difficult to follow. One solved murder only seems to open up into another and another and then a kidnapping, maybe, or an elaborate plot to save one devious man? I got to the end of the novel and thought, “But who killed that one guy?” The final conclusion seemed a little convenient but was definitely unique and cast a new light on certain characters and relationships.
I enjoyed Marlowe’s working relationship with the local police – for good and bad – and all the ways he both co-operates and works around them. At one point, he tells someone that he isn’t Sherlock Holmes, he isn’t going over the police’s tracks to find hidden clues. He trusts them to do their job and to do it thoroughly and he is able to add to their knowledge. This makes him a more realistic mystery-solving figure and, in many ways, a more interesting one.
The Big Sleep was Chandler’s novel and I think it shows in several ways. But there’s enough there – and a great deal to our man Marlowe – that I would happily read more from him.