I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. 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.
So begins PI Philip Marlowe in Chandler’s classic hard-boiled detective noir. I think that quote perfectly sums up the atmosphere of the novel and gives you a little glimpse into why this book is included in TIME Magazine’s top 100 novels written since 1923.
The Big Sleep is all about two crazy dames! The sisters (Vivian and Carmen) are always getting into trouble. This time Carmen is being blackmailed and her extraordinarily rich and dying father has hired Marlowe to get things handled all quiet like, see? What follows next is an almost dizzying romp of murder, mayhem, and pornography with a side of misogyny and homophobia. Ahh…the 30s.
Clearly, Chandler was a master of setting and atmosphere. I was immediately pulled into this world through his gorgeous (albeit, bloody) imagery. The dialogue is golden and holds fast to a time long since past. Thirties slang is the name of the game and it can be hard to keep up with but so much fun to try! I quite literally didn’t know half of what they were saying and had to constantly reread scenes to figure out what had happened in conversation. A man could lose his life without me noticing. That’s how much language and slang have changed in 80 years. Both a pro and a con to this story.
The plot was fast paced but ultimately predictable. I’m not sure that’s the book’s fault. In the thirties, I’m sure this felt fresh and new but so many books have emulated since. Still well worth the read to see how such novels came to be. I loved seeing where some of my favorite modern day entertainment got its inspiration – specifically Veronica Mars. I might have even replaced Marlowe with Mars in my mind once or twice which was confusing because there was an actual character named Mars. But that’s just a me problem…
As for the misogyny and homophobia – definitely a sign of the times and hard to read at moments. Some jovial slapping of women takes place and several derogatory statements are made concerning gay men. So if you’re sensitive to that be forewarned, but I think books should be read as a study of their time. I like seeing how far (or not far) we’ve come since the thirties.
I’d recommend this book to those explorers of literature who want to read the novel often cited as the birth of this particular sub-mystery/detective genre. A quick, fun read – a moment of time to relive. I’m not sure, however, that I’d add this to my own personal top 100 list, but I don’t regret reading it in the slightest!