Book Review: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is Raymond Chandler’s first novel, published in 1939, and adapted into movie format in 1946 and 1978. It is the first book to introduce detective Phillip Marlowe, who then appeared in a number of Chandler’s later works.

I wanted to read this book because I’ve long been enamoured with Raymond Chandler. He was one of the first writers to introduce a smart-talking “tough guy with a heart of gold” written in first person narrative. Chandler’s quotes on writing, and his writing itself, have long been an inspiration for me as a writer, and I often see parallels between him and some of my other favourite authors (such as Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files). Chandler’s writing influenced, directly or indirectly, a huge number of modern authors.

The Big Sleep has Phillip Marlowe hired by the elderly and infirm General Sternwood to deal with a blackmailer, who claims to be a purveyor of rare books. The subsequent investigation leads Marlowe to a pornography ring, multiple murders, a potential kidnapping, and a missing gangster. The story is fast-paced, complicated, and exciting, and Chandler delivers it with strong characterisation and an obvious love for language.

Reading The Big Sleep was like being immersed into the seedy underside of 1930s LA. Chandler’s writing style is both descriptive and inclusive. Not only does he paint a picture of people, places and events, he welcomes the reader into the picture and suggests that they make themselves comfortable. The opening paragraph of the novel is a perfect example of this.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little 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.

There are so many evocative sections of prose in this novel that quoting them all would be tantamount to posting the entire novel online. There is barely a page without an inspired moment of brilliance. To illustrate this, I open the book at random and the first paragraph my eyes alight on is:

The black candles guttered in the draught from the open door. Drops of black wax crawled down their sides. The air of the room was poisonous and unreal.

I highly recommend anyone with an interest in language, reading, writing, or detective stories read The Big Sleep, and any other of Raymond Chandler’s novels. Although Chandler was quoted as saying that there’s no such thing as a ‘classic’ when it comes to detective fiction, I’d have to say that his books come close enough that the difference is negligible.

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