Book Review: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The next book I read for my Readings in the Genre: Mystery Classics class for Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction was The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep has been the most enjoyable out of all the mystery novels we’ve read so far. I liked the character of Philip Marlowe and I think that he was a professional detective like we haven’t seen before. He clearly cared about himself and was the first one completely capable of taking care of himself responsibly. He starts out with a description of himself in chapter 1, page 1: “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.” He described men and women with near equal detail, and he described them as a detective would, or as someone who is used to searching for clues and having to read people and their behavior in order to get those clues. When he meets the butler in chapter 1 on page 5, Philip says: “He was a tall, thin, silver man, sixty or close to it or a little past it. He had blue eyes as remote as eyes could be. His skin was smooth and bright and he moved like a man with very sound muscles.” He had various other descriptions of men and women all throughout the story and it was always a very visual imagine. Part of the descriptions that works is how it’s not just about the way they dress, but also about the way they carry themselves. And Philip goes into a lot of depth not just to notice and describe the women, but the men as well. This shows that he really is a very good detective, since he sees more to people than their appearance.

The Big Sleep was definitely well written with good prose and there’s a lot to be said about learning writing style from reading books like this. The dialogue moved smoothly and I never questioned whether the dialogue was realistic because it flowed that smoothly. I guess my concern with the dialogue was that I sometimes couldn’t tell who was talking and who was in each scene. There might have been some issues with showing and not telling bit, which I think is conveyed fairly solidly throughout the book, though there is also a lot of visual descriptions included in the story. For some reason, I noticed a lot of the color blue throughout the book. I mean, it starts with him in a bright blue suit, which he describes very nicely. I tried to do a search to count the total number of times the word “blue” was used, but I got to about 52 in the first several chapters and had to stop. But since I like the color blue, it wasn’t really a bad thing. Perhaps it was used to add color to a very dark world.

I did pay attention to the way characters and the setting were described. I could very much empathize with Philip when he meets with the General in the first chapter in the greenhouse. I’ve been places like that and the writing style made me feel it all over again – the uncomfortable stickiness of your clothes and the smell and the overall atmosphere.

I was impressed to see our first detective who cared about his appearance and was fully capable of taking care of himself. Not only did he take care of himself, but he was a true professional the entire time. He didn’t mix business with pleasure. All of the named women in the novel attempted to seduce or sexually entice Philip at some point throughout the story and he denied all of their advances, sometimes in rather amusing ways. Philip might very well be someone who is a very solid professional who does his job well and who is an upstanding citizen. I definitely agreed with his morality in attempting to refund the money to the General and I really liked his interactions with the General.

I’m not really sure I could tell you exactly what I read in this novel. I know a bunch of people were killed and the main character seemed to magically be there for the vast majority of the murders, but I’m not really sure I remember exactly who was responsible for which deaths. And in the long run, I don’t think it really matters. I found it incredibly odd that Philip continued to find himself at the scene of so many murders. He’s there when Mr. Arthur Gwynn Geiger is shot and then he helps Carmen Sternwood get back to the house and cleaned up. Joe Brody gets shot through the door while Philip is there, getting the pictures of Carmen. He just happens to go to the right building at the perfect time to witness Harry Jones get poisoned by Canino. He eventually kills Canino. This story is a very good example of the ticking clock in mysteries because things keep happening and it’s all very fast-paced. The whole story takes place in about five days and someone dies pretty much every day.

The reason that I’m referring to Philip Marlowe as Philip throughout my discussions of this book is because all the women are given first names (Vivian, Carmen, Agnes) and the men are referred to as last names. This is fairly common throughout most stories and is designed to make the men look more professional and the women look more personal. I prefer to put them on equal footing. In fact, in the entire Chapter 28, around page 288-301, Philip never once mentions the name of the woman he is talking to. We know that she’s Eddie’s Mars’ wife, but her name isn’t mentioned. Is it because she is not going to attempt to seduce Philip that she has no name during this portion? That was actually one of the things that made this book a little challenging for me is that character names were so rarely mentioned that there were a few times when I wasn’t quite positive who the characters in the scene were.

I was starting to really think about sexism in these novels and about how these stories always have the “dame” and she’s always a very specific style of character, which really makes me frustrated. This seems to be a trope, and a rather annoying one at that. Are their queer or non-heteronorm mysteries out there where the lead detective is a guy and has to go into Chip-N-Dales or something like that and get hit on by all these hot and easy guys?

I understand the time it was written and how that was a very different time than what we live in now. Oddly, there are a lot of books today that still use the same format of referring to women by their first names and men as their last names, and with the same intent of making the men look more professional and the women look more personal. We read a lot of articles and had quite a few discussions on it during one of my gender studies courses many, many years ago.

I recently read an article called Harry Potter’s female readers now driving the boom in ‘grip lit’. It was a really interesting article (found here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/17/harry-potters-female-readers-now-driving-the-boom-in-grip-lit (Links to an external site.) and it discussed some very interesting trends about book buying.

“Statistics from Nielsen Book show that fiction sales were up 5.2% last year, with crime and thriller novels accounting for 29% of the market, the second-largest genre behind general and literary fiction, which was worth 41%. The crime sector is estimated to have increased last year to a record volume of over 25m copies sold – including ebooks – with psychological thrillers such as The Girl on the Train, called “grip lit” by the book sales monitor (Links to an external site.), helping drive the growth.

Nielsen said that 67% of grip lit is bought by women, with 25 to 34-year-olds accounting for the largest age category within that. Women accounted for 60% of the sales for Paula Hawkins’ smash hit The Girl on the Train, with the same age range dominating sales. Just 17% of sales of the novel were to males aged 25 to 34.”

This novel had a lot of death and a lot of murders and sometimes, I’m not sure I knew what Philip was truly attempting to investigate. He tells everyone repeatedly that he’s not looking for Rusty Reagan, but no one seems to believe him, and I, as a reader, didn’t see Philip actually doing anything to pursue Rusty until near the end. In this way, the mystery was complex and interesting, as were the characters, because no one was similar. The murders were mostly conducted by different people, though they were more or less facilitated by the same people. For me, there was a good balance of action and “what’s going on” to make the book interesting.

Since the story is about Philip working through a mystery of who is attempting to black mail the General’s family and why and not really about solving a bunch of murders, I was willing to give the story a bit of credit for how he managed to get to all of the crime scenes just in time to witness the crime. I don’t think it was particularly realistic to have him witness so many crimes, but the idea with this kind of story back then was to focus the action and attention on only one main character, the hero detective of the story. It did seem to be a bit like a Disney chase with characters appearing and disappearing and how everything was formulaic.

I guess one of the differences from my perspective between The Glass Key and The Big Sleep is that official personnel such as police personnel in The Big Sleep tended to actually care that more people were killed, instead of like in The Glass Key where random people just died and the officials didn’t really care how or why or do anything about it. I do acknowledge that that was probably more common and a sign of those times, but from my perspective today, it just seems weird. The dark environment in which people lived back then has a lot to do with why this novel and the others set in this timeframe are so different from the way we read things today. Maybe this kind of stuff was commonplace back then and it truly was believable? Or maybe it was escapism for the populace of that time, believing that there was a “good guy” out there who could find the truth for truth’s sake, not just for the draw of money. And maybe that “good guy” would participate in activities that might make the streets safer for “normal” people. I don’t know.

The Bremen reading had some really great points about mystery writing in general. “If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce. If the impersonation is impossible once the reader is told the conditions it must fulfill, then the whole thing is a fraud.” These thoughts are actually pretty solid for any genre, and most genres should have an element of some sort of mystery, be it attempting to figure out how something happened or why, or actually investigating a death of some sort.

I think that the crime and thriller categories started with books exactly like The Big Sleep. There’s a mystery, combined with a lot of action, and characters who are very different than the “typical” people we all might know in our own social circles. The Big Sleep was a great title, and I felt it matched with the overall tone of the entire novel very, very well.

Overall, I would say this is probably a mid-grade two on my rating scale. I’m glad I didn’t buy it and I’m not entirely certain I would ever read it again, but I did get some valuable stuff out of it.

Work Cited: Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Knopf, 2002. Electronic Book. Original Publication 1939.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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One Response to Book Review: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

  1. That was a very detailed and in depth book review! Nicely done!

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