Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (51 down 49 to go)

"What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep…" ~ Philip Marlowe

This is the first time I’ve read The Big Sleep or Raymond Chandler. The novel is the first in Chandler’s detective series about private detective Philip Marlowe. It is a hardboiled (that’s actually a genre…I didn’t know that), crime and/or detective novel, set in late 1930s Los Angeles.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square O4 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Classic Mystery

I’m a bit surprised to find this on any top 100 novels list. I’m probably biased, but I don’t consider the detective genre great literature. I consider it more of a guilty pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that, and perhaps this is the gold-standard of the genre. Personally, I find it a stretch to compare this novel, or the genre, with the classics I’ve read thus far – even those I’ve disliked. It just doesn’t seem to be the same level of achievement. 

As far as a guilty pleasure though, it was a fun read. Philip Marlowe is the quintessential hardboiled detective. I can imagine Bogey speaking every line uttered by Marlowe, such as:
I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-lounge with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony and sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong-looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

The case starts out as a simple blackmail case, the client a dying millionaire, but of course there is more to the case than meets the private eye: murder, a string of murders, kidnapping, pornography (as in illegal in the 30s), and more extortion. Anything more would be a spoiler and if you have a long plane trip, or a short weekend – you could do worse. 

In spite of the sordid topics above, the novel is PG-13 at worst.

Marlowe, the cops, the thugs, and the dames use a lot of slang. It’s kind of fun and usually pretty easy to infer the meaning from the context.

Excerpts: Just one other example of Marlowe’s cynical, tough-guy dialogue, describing the same “twist” as in the previous excerpt: 

She’d make a jazzy week-end, but she’d be wearing for a steady diet.

Film Rendition: 1946 version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is a pretty faithful adaptation. Hollywood has Bogey and Bacall’s characters fall in love in the end, which didn’t happen in the book. It also lacked Marlowe’s colorful narrative. But overall it did a good job of capturing the feel of the novel.



  1. You say: "I’m probably biased, but I don’t consider the detective genre great literature. I consider it more of a guilty pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that, and perhaps this is the gold-standard of the genre. Personally, I find it a stretch to compare this novel, or the genre, with the classics I’ve read thus far – even those I’ve disliked. It just doesn’t seem to be the same level of achievement."

    Well, you are not the first to hold the genre at arm's length and put "great literature" ahead of it. But I would be interested in knowing your definition of "great literature," particularly vis-à-vis your "guilty pleasure" argument. Do not misunderstand me. I am not impugning your distinctions. I am instead curious about the definitions for your distinctions. I look forward to the discussion.

    1. You raise a very good question; I only wish I had a very good answer. The biggest sticking point may be the little word "great" In my humble opinion, that word is grossly overused. Greatness by definition should be something quite rare.

      American Pharoah will flirt with greatness today. If he wins the Belmont Stakes, and the Triple Crown he'll join only eleven others that have done so. He will be truly Great.

      Couldn't resist that illustration because I'm a fan, and excited about the race today.

      But literature is a bit harder to judge with precision and objectivity, so I confess my just that, an opinion and not worth much to anyone but me.

      I have a hard time defining great literature, but I believe it should affect at least two distinctions: excellence of craft, evocative creation, if you will pardon the bit alliteration. Craft being the technical skill with words, creation being the ability with that creation to evoke strong emotion or exalted thought.

      For me at least, the detective novel doesn't do that.

      Thanks for the feedback...good discussion.

    2. My limited aesthetic sense keeps me from hazarding any definition of "great literature." But perhaps longevity is a key. Older works that still have enthusiastic readers in large numbers might fit the definition. Many genre titles would then qualify. And Henry Miller can thus be easily dismissed.

  2. I'm with you on your assessment of this one ....... enjoyable perhaps, but not great.

    As for the detective genre, I do think Dorothy Sayers puts more meat into her Peter Wimsey series and certainly G.K. Chesterton has some very interesting themes in his Father Brown mysteries and his Basil Grant stories. They can certainly be considered as almost-great. :-)

  3. I love Raymond Chandler. His plots can run a bit wild and seem a little directionless, but his use of language can easily be held up against the classics of other genres with his rich descriptions and surprising similes.

    It would be a shame to write off the genre as fluff. You'll be missing out on some great novels.

  4. I have just joined the classics club and I am loving your reviews. The literary standards here will certainly keep me on my toes. I am a huge fan of Chandler, though I agree that the detective genre resides at a rung or two below the true classics. Could it be, perhaps, because rereading a mystery novel is so much less satisfying than the initial read? Compare that to your favorite, Lord of the Rings, which satisfies again and again. Knowing the ending doesn't impair the journey nearly as much.

    1. Hi Susan welcome to the club. Even though I'm not a fan of the detective novel, I can see that Chandler may be the gold standard of the genre. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. We're just going to have to disagree on the subject of Raymond Chandler, I'm afraid. He's my favorite author, and I think his writing is simply superb. If we can have Hemingway and Fitzgerald be classics, why not Chandler? If he had turned that same snappy dialog and distinct, cynical writing style to literary stories instead of detective ones, would he be worthy? Is it his writing or his subject matter that make him "not classic" enough?

    1. You are not alone, but yes, I am unpersuaded so we will have to disagree. I doubt I could give an answer to satisfy, but you asked, so I'll try. First, I want to make a distinction between what I like and what I think is great. I like Chandler's writing, though certainly not as much as you, but I simply do not think of it as GREAT writing. I don't believe it is because of the topic or genre. Great to me denotes an extraordinary achievement, but how do you measure that in literature? Well for me (important parenthetical statement...perhaps only for me, and thus the judgement of greatness may have no validity to anyone but myself)...but for me, the measure is that it makes me think and it makes me feel. The deeper/harder I must think, and the stronger I feel...the greater the literature. I neither felt strongly, or thought deeply reading this novel. It was enjoyable diversion, and again maybe the gold standard of the genre...but again...FOR ME I can't label it great literature.

    2. I knew you would have thought this through! Your answer does make a lot of sense, and I can see why you classify it thus.

      May I ask what you think of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, then? (Sorry if we've discussed this before, or if you've got a post about SH. I'm really tired and my internet is out, so I have only my phone to work with.)

    3. touché...superb point, but unfortunately I've only read one Sherlock Holmes story, and that as a teen, so I cannot make a good comparison.


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