Friday, 20 May 2011

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

 "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts."

As far as detective fiction goes, the influence of Raymond Chandler on the genre is unprecedented. Philip Marlowe remains the iconic and quintessential hard-boiled detective who was first introduced to the world in The Big Sleep (1939) and the rest is history. I have yet to view the film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart in the title role (get off my back, I plan on rectifying this misdemeanor soon!) but this is perfect casting in my mind. Who else could play the suave, jaded, rebellious, clever, wise-cracking tough-guy better than Bogey? No one.

Although the actual mystery in the novel is not particularly exciting and ultimately rendered inconsequential by the end, one must consider that Chandler is laying the groundwork for the genre conventions of 1930s American detective fiction: the cynical detective investigating the seedy underbelly of the rich upper class in Los Angeles involving dying millionaires, blackmail, murder, espionage, gambling, kidnapping, pornography rackets, political corruption and of course, sexy femme-fatales. I can only imagine that the subject material must have been innovative and controversial at the time. For me, Chandler's rip-roaring hard-edged style of 1930's vernacular and the always compelling Marlowe remain the most memorable elements. I found the story more enjoyable by detaching myself from the 21st century and trying to view the novel within the historical context of the novel since Chandler's irreverent crass writing and penchant for misogyny is inadvertently hilarious. Here are a few examples:

"I don't mind your showing me your legs. They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights" (19). 

"She had the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess" (28).

"The giggles stopped dead, but she didn't mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boy friends got around to slapping her sooner or later. I could understand how they might" (66).

"Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night" (154).

Entertaining for the most part and worth reading for its literary genre influence but not a novel that left any sort of indelible impression on me. People who are bigger fans of mystery, detective fiction and film-noir are bound to get more out of it than I did.

Read from May 18 to 20, 2011


  1. I think you put your finger on it, Jason! I thought it was a shining paragon, but then I eat this stuff up. :) Your examples of offensive (not PC) language are the stuff that, for me, makes the character of Marlowe. And I'm not sure it's entirely inadvertent on Chandler's part that they come off as humorous to us today; I think Marlowe's roughness was probably always a little tongue-in-cheek. But I can understand your reaction, too. You said it: we just don't all like the same things. Some people devour romance. -shrug-

  2. Now that you mention it, I think the word "inadvertent" was slightly erroneous on my part. To describe Chandler's writing as "tongue-in-cheek" makes a lot more sense. However, I still can't shake the feeling that he isn't always being facetious. The novel seems like a product of its time and thus, the rampant misogyny, overt masculinity and racism make sense within a historical context. Dunno. :p