If there's anyone here who knows as little about this story as I did when I started reading it, a brief summary: Philip Marlowe, private detective in Los Angeles, is hired to get to the bottom of a blackmailing situation for the very wealthy General Sternwood. What starts out looking like a fairly straightforward case ends up quickly becoming muddied with sex, drugs, gambling, and murder. By the end of this surprisingly short novel, there are bodies everywhere and not a clean resolution to be seen.
First, let me warn anyone interested in reading this book that it is a product of its time. I was a little surprised at how blatant the homophobia and violence against women was, but I probably shouldn't have been. And it left a sour taste in my mouth because I can't ignore that sort of thing even when I know its historical place. The homophobia in particular is pretty toxic at points. I've done a little reading since finishing The Big Sleep, and I'm aware now that I'm not the only one who's noticed; apparently this is a bit of a theme in Marlowe's behaviour and attitudes.
Which is a shame, because otherwise this novel is a great ride. It's wonderfully melodramatic, and rife with description that is almost purple prose but not quite. Take this description of a greenhouse:
The plants filled the space, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.
The story is told in the first person, from Marlowe's point of view. And he's got a powerfully strong, distinctive voice. When I caught myself thinking something was cliche and overdone, I had to remind myself that it was Chandler who came first, and I suspect (though I haven't read a lot of noir-style mysteries) best. Characters get described in terse sentences like this:
He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn't owe too much money.
And there is always something that responds to those little descriptions in the mind. It all comes together in a particularly vivid, messy image of place and people. Of everything I liked about this book - its highly tangled plot, its distinctive voice - it was the rich sense of place that emanated from the pages that I liked best. Chandler takes his time with description. He doesn't leave anything out, and while in some cases I find description tiresome, this book in particular is as much about place as it is about plot and would have been much poorer without it. The place reflects the mood of the novel and its protagonist, and is almost an indifferent but vital character on its own. In the same way that Sherlock Holmes couldn't be anywhere but London, Philip Marlowe is a product of, and belongs in, Los Angeles.
Overall, I'm glad I read this book and I can see why it's a classic. I don't see myself jumping up and rushing to read more Chandler, largely because it's not my favourite genre and even more because of the issues I mentioned above, but I wouldn't argue if it came my way either.