The Big Sleep
Winner of the Hound's book of the year for 1939, The Big Sleep is as good as hardboiled PI fiction gets. Philip Marlowe - one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters - is hired by a dying millionaire, to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters.
Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.
Since Geiger’s been killed, Marlowe doesn’t officially need to work for General Sternwood any longer. But then he gets a call from Bernie Ohls, chief investigator for the D.A.’s office. The body of the Sternwoods’ chauffer has been dredged along with the family Buick out of the water off the Lido pier. At first it looks like a suicide, but there’s also a chance that the victim was murdered. And when the medical examiner’s report comes back it becomes clear that this was no suicide. Marlowe can’t help much about who killed the chauffer, and he’s unwilling to talk about Geiger’s death because he doesn’t want to involve Carmen Sternwood. But, in their own ways, he and Ohl start to share information.
Then, Carmen’s sister Vivian Regan visits Marlowe. She’s received a very compromising ‘photo of Carmen along with the threat that it will be sent to a gossip magazine unless she pays blackmail. Marlowe’s had about enough of the Sternwoods but he agrees to look into the matter.
This is a noir, hardboiled novel, so as you can imagine, most of the characters are deeply flawed, and very few of them can be trusted. There are, however, a few bright spots that hint at some kind of redemption. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that some of the characters do what we’d have to call fairly noble things despite their weaknesses.
Most especially there’s the character of Philip Marlowe. More than once he refuses to get drawn into the corruption he sees within and around the Sternwood family. But although he has a strong moral code and compassion too, that doesn’t make him perfect. He has his own flaws, although Chandler avoided the stereotypical demon-haunted sleuth in drawing Marlowe’s character. We may not agree with all of his decisions, but he does the best he can amidst a great deal of corruption and greed.
And there is quite a lot of both in this novel. Among other things, it’s a cynical look at the lives of the rich and privileged. Here, for instance, is what General Sternwood says himself about his daughters:
'Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’
What’s interesting is that Chandler contrasts that greed, corruption and decadence with the more sterling quality of some of the other characters in the story. Characters such as Bernie Ohls are more decent, hard-working types. They are also middle- or working-class characters and it’s clear where Chandler’s sympathies lay.
Chandler’s writing style holds this story together. It’s spare and sometimes dry. But at the same time, it’s sometimes almost lyrical. The style moves the story along and gives it a noir-ish atmosphere that adds much to the story.
The Big Sleep is a dark, cynical look at the messes that people can make of their lives, even if they’re rich and powerful (sometimes especially if they are) and even if they mean well. It’s also a portrait of a sleuth who tries to stay above it all and make the best of sometimes unpleasant and dangerous situations. It’s got a distinctive neon-lit Los Angeles setting and some strong, complicated characters.
About Raymond Chandler:
Raymond Thornton Chandler was an American novelist and screenwriter.
In 1932, at age forty-four, Raymond Chandler decided to become a detective fiction writer after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Depression. His first short story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot", was published in 1933 in Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. In addition to his short stories, Chandler published just seven full novels during his lifetime (though an eighth in progress at his death was completed by Robert B. Parker). All but Playback have been realized into motion pictures, some several times. In the year before he died, he was elected president of the Mystery Writers of America. He died on March 26, 1959, in La Jolla, California.
Chandler had an immense stylistic influence on American popular literature, and is considered by many to be a founder, along with Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and other Black Mask writers, of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. Chandler's Philip Marlowe, along with Hammett's Sam Spade, are considered by some to be synonymous with "private detective," both having been played on screen by Humphrey Bogart, whom many considered to be the quintessential Marlowe.
General Guy Sternwood hires Marlowe to help him with a family problem. A book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Sternwood wants Geiger to leave the family alone, and Marowe’s job will be to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe agrees and goes to see Geiger. But when he tracks the man down, he finds that Geiger’s just been murdered. In the same room, and a witness to what happened, is Carmen Sternwood. She’s either having a mental breakdown or under the influence of a drug, so she can’t say much of anything about what happened. But Marlowe wants to get her away from the crime scene before the police get there and make what Marlowe is sure is the wrong assumption. By the time he‘s gotten Carmen home and returned to Geiger’s place, the body has disappeared.