Originally published: 1939
Author: Raymond Chandler
Published by: Penguin UK
Length: 251 pages
Reading dates: 28-31 July 2020
‘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.’
Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe is hired by wheelchair-bound General Sternwood to discover who is indulging in some petty blackmail. A weary, old man, Sternwood just wants the problem to go away. However, with Sternwood’s two wild, devil-may-care daughters prowling LA’s seedy backstreets, Marlowe’s got his work cut out. And that’s before he stumbles over the first corpse.
Since lockdown (and virtual book club meetings) we have been voting for books based on a theme. July’s theme was “classics by a male author” and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler was our choice. Luckily I already had a copy from some books I was sent a couple of years ago and was keen to try one of his books. Because the weather was so lovely, we were able to meet in the park and have a chat in person and it was so lovely to see everyone again! Real life chats work much better than Zoom meetings!
I’m sorry to say this book wasn’t for me for so many reasons. I felt the characterisation wasn’t great. Despite the author’s extensive descriptions of the clothes people were wearing, I didn’t get to feel like I knew any of the characters very well. The women are all written as hysterical creatures, giggling or hot headed and protagonist PI Philip Marlowe seems to spend the whole book slapping them to calm them down (which incidentally none of them seem to mind that much) or admiring their legs!
“I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony and sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem.”
I found the plot quite confusing – a lot of people end up dead and by about half way through I was struggling to make the connections between who was who! I do think this is partly due to my lack of enjoyment of the book – I would read a couple of pages and realise I hadn’t taken anything in.
I found it really interesting that there are themes of pornography and homosexuality which I imagine at the time of publication would of been quite shocking, yet there is no swearing in the book! One of the characters repeatedly tells Marlow to “Go——–yourself”.
Some of the similes were really good but I felt they were a little overused – I don’t think they are the sort of thing you should notice. Overall, we all rated this book quite low for the same reasons – we found it dated, sexist , racist, homophobic and very much of it’s time. I’m positive I won’t be reading any more books by this author! Although I am tempted to watch the movie…😃
Raymond Chandler Repackaged
Back in 2018, Penguin repackaged Chandler’s books with striking black and white photographic covers
The redesign brief was to find a look that “reflects Chandler’s wit, his style and his peerless literary credentials, while capturing the mood of the novels and their distinctive sense of place and time.” I do really like these covers!
About the author:
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.
Some of Chandler’s novels are considered to be important literary works, and three are often considered to be masterpieces: Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Little Sister (1949), and The Long Goodbye (1953). The Long Goodbye is praised within an anthology of American crime stories as “arguably the first book since Hammett’s The Glass Key, published more than twenty years earlier, to qualify as a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery”.