Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

This one surprised me. I hadn't meant to read it in two days, particularly since one of those days was a day off when Things Needed to Get Done. But the chapters of The Big Sleep are so short, and things keep happening, and I need to keep reading, and then suddenly two hours have gone by and the book is done.

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.

6 comments:

Nan said...

I have it in a collection of mysteries but haven't read it. Have you seen the movie? I think I've read that even the screenwriter didn't know what was going on. I wonder if the book is clearer. It's good these books are around and being read to remind us of how far we've come

kiirstin said...

I haven't seen the movie, actually, although I think I might, now. It's such a classic, and having read the book I think I could probably follow the movie a bit better. I think I saw somewhere that William Faulkner was the screenwriter? I can believe he would write a script where he wasn't sure what was happening.

The plot is very convoluted, tying itself up in knots, and certainly at the beginning of the story I had no idea what was going on. But it all eventually becomes clear. I really like the way Chandler resolved the story -- the mystery is solved, but the ending is not at all neat and tidy. It's masterfully done.

Nymeth said...

I actually forgot that I wanted to read this when making myself a list of mysteries the other day. It does sound like a good book, but sigh - I KNOW that the homophobia and sexism are going to drive me crazy too :/

kiirstin said...

Nymeth - It will, but it's still definitely a worthwhile read. My husband and I were discussing yesterday and discovered that we'd read it entirely different ways: I'd read it more as a character/community study, with plot threads everywhere, some dead ends and others not, to be teased apart; he read it more as a realistic mystery, with dead ends to be discarded and ignored as done by Marlowe. Great reading, with the wince-inducing parts taken in context.

Mandy said...

Mystery, crime fiction, is not really my genre either. But this review makes me want to read The Big Sleep, just to see.

kiirstin said...

Mandy - It is a classic, and the writing is fascinating. It's fun to see where some of those conventions, especially the ones that get lampooned now, come from. Definitely worth a read, and not a long one.