Raymond Chandler, one of the pioneers of roman noir and hard-boiled fiction, authored three of the most important books of my life– the novels being The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. Even though they all are amazing, for my current piece I’ve decided to focus solely on The Big Sleep– Chandler’s first work and his greatest masterpiece, a novel that was also chosen by the venerated TIME magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century.
The Big Sleep is famous for its labyrinthine and deliciously convoluted plot, filled with red herrings and complex character study. It is impossible to reveal the numerous angles, innuendos and intricacies that Chandler reveled in concocting and which attained imperious and mesmerizing proportions in this book; hence I will not even attempt walking down that path. The novel starts with the simple premise of private investigator Phillip Marlowe being hired by General Sternwood, an incapacitated wealthy man, to investigate into a matter of blackmail. However, soon enough, he gets drawn into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where deceit, pornography, ugly revelations and murder, as the synopsis for the book so aptly puts it, “are just few of the complications that” he has to deal with. Throw in a few archetypal bad guys, a blonde seductress with deadly motives and dark secrets of her own – the perfect femme fatale – in the form of Vivian Sternwood, and her crazy, nymphomaniac sibling Carmen, and you have an unputdownable template for an engaging detective thriller.
In essence, the befuddling and utterly mind-bending plot, which twists and turns like a serpent on marijuana, is just one of the numerous facets that have given this book such iconic status and high literary importance. It is a brilliant take on the dark underbelly of a city, with its amoral pleasures, corruption, complete lack of ethics and mores, decadence, power politics, and shadowy creatures. The big, bad, sleazy urban jungle of 1940’s Los Angeles, with its sprawling houses whose residents do not believe in the clichéd epithet “home is where the heart is”, neon-lit smoke-filled bars where lonely hearts drown their sorrow and loneliness in glasses of cheap whiskey, drop-dead-beautiful dames loaded with a hell lot of dimes but with hearts as empty as a strewn beer can, trigger-happy gangsters who love making people play around their fingers, and police force that works like a machine with an excess of rusted bolts and conveniently inefficient joints, to name a few, is an unforgettable fifth character of the novel. It truly plays upon the sort of place the world had become during and post-World War II. And in this world resided a character who, in a quick glance might easily qualify as one of the representatives of the sordid times depicted, but in essence is anachronistic in his internal makeup – Phillip Marlowe.
An investigator by profession, a loner by choice, and enigmatic by nature, Phillip Marlowe is one of the most incredible characters of American literature, hell, any work of art. He is a chain-smoking, hard drinking (he loves his bourbon on the rocks), plain-speaking all-American hero. He is an unabashed cynic with a wry sense of humor (tar black at that), his sarcastic and heavily pun-laden snide remarks are never lost on the readers or his fellow characters, and he as tough a son-of-a-gun as you’ll get. But for all his detached sense of existence and hard demeanor, he is a nice person. He has a fierce sense of honor and duty, he always deals fairly and with integrity, he is a sentimentalist at heart, he has the tenacity of a mule, he has an incisive mind, and he is really good at his job. He is a nihilist by appearance and is nearly an anti-hero, but he is the good guy all right. He may not be as ingenious or intellectually brilliant as a Sherlock Holmes, but he is arguably the finest private eye for the simple reason that he is a man of flesh and blood with all his flaws, past baggage and complexities (may Arthur Conan Doyle rest in peace).
Crackling with wit and off-balancing intelligence, Chandler’s narrative is intriguing, captivating and astounding in equal measures. The sentences and dialogues are so uniquely Chandler that the word “Chandleresque” was invented to describe his arresting style of writing. As a critic so wonderfully summed him, “he’s easy to parody, but impossible to improve on”. Perhaps it wasn’t for no reason that the character Chandler, in the famous sitcom series Friends, was named so – for only a Chandler can do a Chandler (if you know what I mean).
Chandler, for all his greatness, was unique in that he didn’t become a writer because he felt it was his calling, rather it was to earn a quick buck at a time of personal and professional crises. Consequently he started late. But he made up for that big time with the groundbreaking debut novel. The Big Sleep (in my humble opinion), is a cornerstone where noir fiction is concerned.