This particular book was given to me with another one, The Shark That Walks on Land by Michael Bright. Both were a present from Sam, with the sea stories by Bright intended as an inspiration and research for a novel idea of mine, and Chandler’s thriller — ‘so that for a few hours you can experience life the way BMO lives it every day’. (Reference to ‘BMO Noire’, an episode of animated series Adventure Time. I can wholeheartedly recommend the episode as a stand-alone piece.)
It was a thoughtful gift, which made me question everything I knew about Sam. It was a great gift, but I did not find that out until now.
Technically speaking, The Big Sleep is Frankenstein’s monster. Published in 1939, it had been assembled by Raymond Chandler out of two short stories: ‘Killer in the Rain’ (1935) and ‘The Curtain’ (1936). That might be the reason why The Big Sleep is not as accurately structured as a Christie novel, famously leaving out the answer to who killed the chauffeur. When Chandler was asked that question by Howard Hawks, whose writing team was working on a film adaptation of the novel, the author replied that he had no idea.
That might seem like carelessness, but a likelier explanation is in Chandler’s approach to crime writing altogether. For him, the atmosphere, the characters’ credibility and logic in their actions trump the need to untie every knot and explain every twist. In the introduction to a short story collection of his, Chandler writes about the difference between the pulp magazine subgenre of crime and the traditional detective narrative:
The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story, on the other hand, was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.
Introduction to Trouble Is My Business (1940)
Black Mask was a pulp magazine that existed in 1920–1987 and published works by Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Paul Cain, Chandler himself and, much later, James Ellroy. It was the best cheap fiction.
Returning to the point about the missing denouement, that does not apply to The Big Sleep. The novel finale, while not exactly predictable, is set up from the very start. Structurally, we return to the place we started from, only burdened by the knowledge of intimate facts. As for the chauffeur’s death, there are a few characters who could have done it but, since most of them do not survive the story either, the possibilities remain open. I quite like that: a life-like manner of dealing with corpses.
Raymond Chandler would make for a good fictional character: having served in World War I, he begins an affair with the married mother of one of his comrades, ‘Cissy’ Pascal. They get married in 1924 and stay together until her death in 1954. Professionally, Chandler rises to become a vice-president of an oil syndicate in 1931, ‘but his alcoholism, absenteeism, promiscuity with female employees, and threatened suicides contributed to his dismissal a year later’.
The Big Sleep is a very good, solid novel with characters who represent archetypes, yet have enough personality to them to be memorable and distinct. General Sternwood is a force even when confined to his bed, and it is only natural that Carmen and Vivian, his two wild and pretty daughters, cause destruction to men. Philip Marlowe, the private detective and narrator, is not just a tool — in any sense of the word — but a complex character with vulnerabilities (he cannot stand Carmen’s presence in his apartment, perceiving it as an intrusion) and prejudices (Marlowe’s attitude towards homosexuality is almost comical: ‘a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like’).
The use of cast is economical: there are no extras, everyone has a role to play. The same economy is applied to dialogue, often play-like in its nature, conversations taking place in the same confined spaces.
The language is one of the novel’s strongest parts, but it also makes the text almost incomprehensible at times: slang words from the 1930s plus Chandler’s neologisms create a heady mix. ‘Get in Dutch’, ‘cute as a Filipino on a Saturday night’, rubbers and porte-cochères are confusing if you are not yet approaching eighty, although it is precisely those phrases which make the text authentic. Having read The Black-Eyed Blonde a short while ago (John Banville imitating Raymond Chandler and using Marlowe as the narrator), I can testify that the atmosphere of a bygone era is not recreated easily.
There are two film adaptations of The Big Sleep: the 1946 version with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the 1978 one with Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles. I can safely predict that both films will be featured on Chance & Physics.
Structural matters aside, The Big Sleep is not a perfect book. There are run-on sentences and the amount of detail can be excessive. Timing and action are spot-on, but I do wish not every single female character was a damsel in distress, even if they do have plenty of agency.
If I were to describe Raymond Chandler’s novel in one word, I would call it ‘neat’. The narrative circle, the sharpness of the dialogue, the ability to fully describe a character in very few words (but also to reintroduce them without repeating yourself) — all of that makes for tight and intelligent writing. I can imagine myself returning to The Big Sleep in the future, to refresh my understanding of drinking and driving and of the many uses of a handkerchief.
Bibliography: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. United States, first published in 1939. My copy published by Penguin Books and printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc in 2011. ISBN 9780241956281. (On Goodreads)
Current album: Garbage, Beautiful Garbage
Current book: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Current TV series: Selfie, Series 1 (2014)