Book Review: ‘The Big Sleep’ (1939)

The short: 3.5/5 ✦. A classic novel of the detective noir variety, with atmosphere aplenty, though subpar in plot.

The long:

Chandler is a damn good writer, I’ll admit that. And the noir is strong with this one — which is to be expected, of course, given when it was written. You don’t even need to have seen the film adaptation to automatically read this book in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. (And for the record, I haven’t, and I did.)

(Wrong movie, I know.)

But listen: I love noir and hard-boiled detectives and urban mysteries as much as the next gal, but I just couldn’t get into this one. The plot was all over the place, jumping from one murder to the next, a mishmash of names and suspects and victims and ne’er-do-wells, and I could barely keep everybody straight. And apparently, there’s no ultimate denouement for every single mystery (who killed the chauffeur? who knows? who cares?). I did like the ending, oddly enough. Marlowe had spent a better part of the story denying that he had any stake in finding out what happened to Rusty Regan, and then he finds out anyway, and in one of the most dramatic ways possible.

As Wikipedia states, Chandler was less concerned about plot than about atmosphere and characters, and boy, you can practically smell the dusty cigarette smoke and sharp bourbon emitting from the very pages. It takes place in Los Angeles, and (though it rained in the novel far more than seems likely), you really do feel like you’re there, traveling along in the front bench-seat of those old cars, tailing a weedy-looking guy up in the hills, and fighting Hollywood traffic. As for the characters, well, it can be hard to tell the difference between stilted dialogue and stiff behavior and merely that being the book’s style; I’m fine with femme fatales, for instance, but Carmen and Vivian were just a little too stereotypical (incredibly sexy and also so dangerous and silly and fickle — women!). And there are also homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs peppered throughout; again, it was the 1930s, but that’s just an explanation, not an excuse.

If you’re interested in the classics and pioneers of the noir detective genre, The Big Sleep is not one to miss, though I would do so with a grain of salt — and perhaps some gin and tonic. With a tiny umbrella.

Header image: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, published August 1992 by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

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