The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Reading The Song Is You naturally involved thoughts about hardboiled and/or noir fiction. And whenever I have had a discussion about this particular genre someone always recommends Raymond Chandler. At some point in the past I picked up the beautiful Modern Library edition of The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. Having read Abbott I thought it would be interesting to read one of her inspirations. Go back to a classic and see how it relates.

It proved to be interesting but a little disappointing. I am not sure why, perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for that particular style, but The Big Sleep didn’t wow me as many had assured me it would. Intellectually I could see why people enjoyed it but emotionally I didn’t quite connect.

Orrin Judd notes that The Big Sleep is firmly in the genre camp but still great literature:

By the time Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, in 1939, the private detective story had already — thanks in large part to the template established in The Maltese Falcon — become genre fiction. The elements were all firmly in place: first person narration; more metaphors and similes than you can shake a stick at; a lone, hard drinking, tough guy detective; an ex-cop of some kind, frustrated by the corrupt system of justice; beset by a convoluted case set among the upper classes; femme fatales; temperamental gunsels; disappearing corpses; hostile police and prosecutors; and so on. But both Chandler and Ross MacDonald demonstrated that working within that genre it was possible to produce great literature–which The Big Sleep definitely is.

Orrin goes on to call Marlowe “our modern Don Quixote” a man who is “trying to hold back the tide of modernity by upholding an antiquated, but still compelling, code of honor.”

William Marling, Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, describes Marlowe as “the genre’s most influential series detective” and notes his unique role:

His wise-cracking style and capacity to endure punishment from his foes introduced a new kind of “performance” to hard-boiled fiction, in which victory was more often verbal than physical. Chandler’s ironic tone and extraordinary metaphors focused readers on individual scenes, which he excelled at writing. Many of these evoke Southern California in the late 1930s so vividly that the setting seems to become part of the plot. Most critics consider this book among the dozen greatest hard-boiled novels.

Reading reviews and history of the genre and the book, I can’t really argue with the critics. The quintessential character of Marlowe, the tone, the metaphors and similes, the evocation of Southern California, its all there. But in the end it just didn’t grab me. Was it enjoyable and entertaining? Sure, it wasn’t a painful read. I wasn’t tempted to put the book down or anything. But it also didn’t make such an impact on me that I immediately wanted to read more of Chandler (the next novel in the volume I was reading for example). Perhaps, I will read Farewell My Love when my mood and perspective is different I will enjoy it more.

Regardless, if you are interested in hardboiled fiction or the evolution of the detective story, or maybe just Southern California in the 1930’s, you will want to check out The Big Sleep. If only to better understand where the genre comes from and how it developed.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. I suspect that Chandler’ll grow on you, if you stick with him.

    Sometimes the outgrowths of a genre can make the seminal works look kind of old hat (and heaven knows they wore a lot of hats).

    Your mileage may vary, of course.

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