Retro review–Raymond Chandler’s early hardboiled crime novel, The Big Sleep

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The first thing to know about Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep is that it was published three years after James M. Cain published the serialized Double Indemnity.  If your only knowledge of The Big Sleep is the big-screen adaptation directed by Howard Hawks starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with a screenplay written by the likes of Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, you should go back and read the novel to see how wrong Bogart is for the lead detective Philip Marlowe.  Both the novel and significantly modified movie version are convoluted tales of murder and mayhem, but the novel is better than the film in many ways.  Its value is in its shocking subject matter for the 1930s and being an early entrant helping to establish hardboiled crime novels as a genre.  Readers were first put inside the brain of Marlowe in this story, which reads like an effort to adapt Cain.  Chandler also was a reader of Cain’s work and along with Billy Wilder, Chandler would adapt Cain’s Double Indemnity for the screen.  Still in print, The Big Sleep is available in trade paperback here at Amazon.

Eight decades after its first publication, how does Chandler’s novel hold up?

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The literary merit in The Big Sleep falls behind that of contemporaries Cain and Erle Stanley Gardner (Chandler acknowledged he learned his style by imitating Gardner), and later crime writers Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake.  You might think of Chandler writing The Big Sleep in historical context as a 1930s/pre-war Elmore Leonard or Quentin Tarantino, complete with profanity and subject matter not found in most popular contemporary novels, which was even more than readers would find in the crime fiction writers of the era.  Marlowe is hired by an aging invalid who is worried about his two daughters.  One gets caught up in a pornography plot and both may or may not be involved in murder.

I tried to block out the movie version in my own read of the novel, and quickly found the leads replaced with Fred MacMurray as Marlowe and Barbara Stanwyck as the elder daughter (both stars of Double Indemnity), with the younger daughter played by noir actress Lizabeth Scott.  Somehow this casting made the novel read better.  But the story bounces around a lot, with extraneous information, and little character development.  What it doesn’t lack is atmosphere, style, and ambience, which is probably the main reason fans of pulp noir return to this novel of Chandler, who surprisingly is so well known after writing only seven novels and a few dozen short stories, of which The Big Sleep is by far the best known.

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The banter is all of the style of the era and copied by others ever since, dialect from the seedy part of town in its darker corners not spoken about by average townspeople, with slang–some of which hasn’t survived–and yet the idea has translated into the kind of street talk you find in works like Attack the Block in the 21st century.  It’s Chandler’s detective dialogue parodied in Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, narrated by the private detectives of Tom Selleck in Magnum, p.i., and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, and echoed throughout 80 years of crime fiction.

It seems silly to refer to The Big Sleep as an ambitious first novel, considering the high praise the book and its author have acquired since, but the totality is not polished like, say, Ian Fleming’s freshman outing Casino Royale The Big Sleep is a struggle at times because of its meandering path forward, and similar to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (reviewed here at borg) in that it disappoints a bit against a modern reader’s expectations of something genius.  Chandler didn’t invent the tropes of the genre but he waded in them.  Unfortunately racism and sexism and homophobia that you won’t find in most of Chandler’s major contemporaries’ works stand out in The Big Sleep like a sore thumb.  If you only saw the movie adaptation then this will come as a surprise, because the studios knew even movie audiences in the 1940s wouldn’t accept it and excised it from the story.  Why did (and do) readers see Marlowe as a hero?  At times he doesn’t take advantage of people or situations that grimier types might.  But often he does, especially the women.  He’s no Sherlock Holmes as detection goes, and he has his flaws.  The young daughter is legitimately disturbed, and may get needed help in the end, but it comes only to the reader as an afterthought in the final words.

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If you think Chandler’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep is best-in-class for the genre, you need to read Cain, Gardner, Westlake, Spillane, and Max Allan Collins, the true masters of the hardboiled crime novel.  But Chandler carved out his place as one of the early greats, and The Big Sleep is a read for anyone interested in looking back on the genre’s early days.

Still in print 82 years later, pick up a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep here at Amazon.

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