Last week was Noir Week over at Tor.com so I decided to revisit some noir books. What better place to start than with Chandler? The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler was written in 1939. It was Chandler’s first novel although he had been publishing stories since 1933. The Big Sleep introduces the character of Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is the epitome of the wisecracking, hard drinking, tough private eye. This type of character feels pretty familiar to us now, but this is where the origins for that familiarity with hard boiled detectives lie.
Parts of The Big Sleep feel like the 30’s. Some of that feel is good–there’s lots of jaunty 30’s lingo in the book. Other parts of that feel are not so good–there is an overtone of racism and homosexuality is not given a very good light. Political correctness was not the phrase of the day. Of course, it was the 30’s and those were the sentiments at play. For Chandler to even mention homosexuals at that time was probably pretty daring. Those aren’t the main focus for the book, however, and I’d say to try to not let them interfere with the flow of the prose.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
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 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.
Chandler certainly does dish out a pistol hot cup of prose. I really couldn’t stop my mind from reading the book in Bogart’s voice.
This opening sets the scene as Marlowe gets a case from General Sternwood (sick, an invalid and the four million dollars) to investigate an attempt at blackmail. The case quickly escalates from blackmail to kidnapping, a pornography ring, seductions, and several murders. Marlowe perseveres and shows he has morals even if the generals daughters, the police and the D.A. may not.
As Marlowe says, “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” but the book is a very good fast paced read.