My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read The Big Sleep, written in 1939, because I thought it might help me understand the movie better and it actually did…with the exception of that practically iconic and ever mystifying question of who killed the chauffeur.
It’s a highly atmospheric book, which I understand was a prime goal for Raymond Chandler. He was less interested in the plot and more interested in the atmosphere and description. He was very comfortable with crimes being committed that were not related to other crimes or crimes that are not fully explained, which is technically the case in real life. As a result, things just seem to happen, without any obvious rhyme or reason.
He certainly succeeds with his atmosphere. He has a very sensual style of writing. He describes smells and people’s expressions in a way that is uniquely evocative. It practically rains throughout the entire book, but it is not a purifying kind of rain, but more of a mucky rain, like all the muck that Detective Philip Marlowe is dealing with. In this book, Los Angeles is not a city of glamour, but of unmistakable seaminess.
This is the first of quite a few novels and short stories involving the private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was interesting to me because, although he’s not exactly a missionary and is quite the cynic, he does seem to have his own code of ethics. There are just some lines he will not cross and he is loyal to his client. He is the only character in the book who seems to have some sort of self-control and inhibitions. Everyone else is jaded, corrupt, criminal or almost animal-like in their emotions.
It was especially interesting to go back and watch the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The movie was turned into a romance (there is no romance in the book) and many elements of the book could not be shown in the movie because of the Hays Code. As a result, the clarity of the film suffered. One character is described in the film as running “a racket” which seems like an obscure way of referring to, what is in the book, the selling of pornography.
The Big Sleep is probably one of the most well known examples of hard boiled detective novels – crime novels with a cynical view of people that deals with the seamier sider of life. Other examples would be by Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon.
On a side note, I used to wonder about the title, but the last bit of the book makes it clear that the big sleep refers to death.