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August 20, 2010

Review: The Big Sleep

Posted by on Aug 20, 2010

“Knights had no meaning in this game.  It wasn’t a game for knights.”

It’s been said that America has made only two contributions to the pantheon of great literary stock characters: the cowboy and the private detective.  Whether or not you agree with such a statement, it’s hard to argue the quintessentially American mentality these characters embody.  A fierce independent streak and an indefatigable drive to maintain one’s honor in an imperfect society are two of the defining facets of both the cowboy and the private detective.  While Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe wasn’t the first American private detective, he was close.   And he might also be the greatest.

Have a coat, a hat, and a gun?  Hit the jump.

Chandler used two similar protagonists in his earlier short stories, Carmady and John Dalmas.  But, when those plot lines were later combined and reworked for novel format, they were assimilated.  And, in 1939, The Big Sleep marked Philip Marlowe’s first official appearance.  When Marlowe is called the estate of the ailing General Sternwood, he is asked to act as an intermediary and to confront a would-be blackmailer with whom one of the General’s two beautiful daughters has become involved.  This seemingly simple case thrusts him into a world of gambling, bootlegging, pornography, and murder.  Chandler masterfully casts Marlowe as the modern day knight operating in a world where chivalry is dead, forced to choose between upholding his own code and discovering the truth.

Reading The Big Sleep, it’s amazing to see how much of the archetypal private detective is drawn from Philip Marlowe.  He drinks, he smokes, women want him, and men want to kill him.  Although he doesn’t shy away from violence, Marlowe prefers to rely on a mixture of charisma and bravado to extricate himself from dangerous situations.  After a gun is pulled on him, his first reaction is to insult the man holding it, lamenting that there are “such a lot of guns around town and so few brains”.  The dialogue is razor sharp, even seventy years past publication, and if you want complexity of plot, you’ve come to the right place.   When the novel was being adapted to (an excellent) film in 1946, Humphrey Bogart (as Marlowe) and the director, Howard Hawks, got into an argument regarding one of the supporting characters whose death the novel had left unsolved.  And, when they telegrammed Raymond Chandler for a resolution, he famously had to admit that he didn’t know the killer’s identity either.

Unlike a lot of so called “classics” that are renowned more for their cultural impact than their quality (here’s looking at you, Brontë sisters) The Big Sleep has both in spades.  If you’re a fan of hard boiled fiction or you enjoyed movies like Brick and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this book’s for you.  Dwight McCarthy, Clive Owen’s character in Sin City, has been described by Frank Miller as a modern day Marlowe.  And, with Owen set to star as Marlowe in a 2012 production of Trouble Is My Business (a later Marlowe novel), now’s the time to catch up.