Book Review: The Big Sleep

09Dec13

bigsleepI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

“It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.” –Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Another building block in my recent exploration of gritty, noir-y fiction (I have been reading Elmore Leonard, and wanting to re-read some Dashiell Hammett), Raymond Chandler was recommended to me by a coworker. I chose The Big Sleep because it’s the one that I’d heard of.

Many people know the general plot, The Big Sleep being both a classic book and a classic movie, but for those who don’t: It is the late 1930s in Los Angeles. Phillip Marlowe is a private detective, hired by a local millionaire to take care of a problem he’s having with one of his daughters being blackmailed. He barely starts investigating that when he stumbles on a murder, and the millionaire’s other daughter’s involvement in dangerous and/or scandalous activities. “Extortion, kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in,” as the book jacket says. The local police force is also sniffing around the case and complicating matters.

Chandler is one of those authors who–like Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett–doesn’t feel the need to tell you what Marlowe is thinking or feeling, even though the novel is told in the first person. Marlowe tells you what he does, all nice and in order, and reports to you what other characters say to him. He lets you draw all the necessary conclusions as to the facts. The only time that explanations are forthcoming is when they are within dialogue. You can read it and try to stay one step ahead of Marlowe, and figure out what’s going on; or you can read it tagging along at his heels, not needing to anticipate. It’s fun both ways. And it’s a really refreshing way to read a novel written this way, one that’s straightforward and doesn’t expound. (Compare Chandler to something like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, one half of which is almost exclusively about one character’s state of mind, rather than her actions.)

Marlowe is funny, too. A mostly decent guy, not any more dishonest than he has to be, with a wry sense of humor you can almost miss and way too much alcohol in his system, but smart enough to take care of himself in the trade he’s chosen. He’s a character you enjoy following, a more comfortable companion than Sam Spade, at any rate.

So yes. Classic. And for good reason.

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