The Big Sleep
If you are an avid reader of crime fiction and are familiar with the works of Walter Mosley, you will be overjoyed to learn that Mosley has signed a two-book deal featuring the detective Easy Rawlins. Rawlins is one of a string of detectives appearing in crime fiction today who owes his existence in part to the creation of two earlier fictional detectives – Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Sam Spade first appeared in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 classic, The Maltese Falcon. Nine years later Raymond Chandler followed up with The Big Sleep and his own creation, Philip Marlowe. Both detectives are important to the genre as they introduced the hard-boiled detective character and writing style that are so often imitated by many of today’s crime writers, including Mosley, Michael Connelly and the late John D. MacDonald.
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is a fast paced, no-nonsense detective story featuring a tough, hard-drinking detective named Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood, an ailing, elderly millionaire who is being blackmailed by a local bookseller. Upon arriving at the Sternwood mansion, Marlowe is greeted by Sternwood’s youngest daughter Carmen, whose gambling debts are at the crux of the blackmail scheme. Carmen, a flirtatious beauty, intercepts the detective before his meeting with the general and immediately attempts to seduce him. Keenly aware of which side his bread will be buttered on, Marlowe resists her advances, leaving Carmen bewildered and frustrated.
Once having met General Sternwood, Marlowe agrees to take the case, but before he can leave the mansion, he’s confronted by Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian. Vivian is convinced that Marlowe has been hired by her father to find her missing husband. Marlowe assures her that she is wrong and begins his investigation. Soon enough, the two Sternwood sisters are figuring prominently in the case, which is now proving to be considerably more trouble than it’s worth (after all, even in 1939, $25 a day was a pittance). Marlowe, however, is a stickler for standing by his client and providing him with the truth, and as the investigation continues, finds himself wading deeper into a pool filled with pornography, gambling and corruption on both sides of the law. Before the crime is solved, Marlowe has withheld evidence and information from the police, ingested copious amounts of alcohol, smoked dozens of cigarettes, kissed more than one femme fatale and sustained numerous, painful blows to his face and torso.
For anyone who has never had the pleasure of reading Chandler’s prose, The Big Sleep offers up more than just a good mystery. Born in Chicago, a seven-year-old Chandler moved with his mother to England where he was educated and worked as a writer until age twenty-four, at which point he moved back to the States and settled in California. When he began to write serious prose, he used the sentence structure that he had learned from his education in England and infused it with American dialogue, creating a style that was all his own.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. 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.”
In Marlowe, Chandler has created a complex character who believes above all else in providing his client with the truth while protecting their reputation. He sees himself as the last honest man in a city full of corruption, and yet he is not above breaking the law himself. He has a low opinion of women but will put himself at great risk to protect them. He lives in a cheap apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, and his mind is as devoid of emotions as his living room is of furniture. Marlowe is a character who has been freed from any and all sentimental bonds.
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s classic novel of crime and detection in 1930s Los Angeles, is considered by many to be one of the country’s most important works of fiction, appearing on both Le Mondes’ “100 Books of the Century” and TIMES’ “List of the 100 Best Novels.” Chandler went on to write seven more novels featuring the detective (one finished by the novelist Robert S. Parker, after Chandler’s death in 1959).