The biggest mistake I made when reading this 1939 hardboiled detective classic was that I checked it out from the library. There were so many clever or insightful passages that I wanted to underline but I couldn’t. Since I am a good citizen, I didn’t mark up the library book. Still, I had so much fun reading this one. Even though it’s over seventy-five years old, the book pops with intriguing characters, real danger, and straight razor dialogue. While I don’t have my favorite quotes and passages readily available, I do have the residual joy that comes from reading the work of a master. Dashiell Hammett was my guy (I campaigned to name my firstborn Dashiell), but now Raymond Chandler is my guy. What a book.
The Big Sleep is Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel. The plot is admittedly a bit convoluted. Marlowe, a private investigator, receives word that a retired old general needs the help of a a guy who can get things done quietly. Marlowe drives out to the man’s large estate, where he meets the broken down general, his cheeky butler, and his two saucy daughters. There’s so much drinking and banter in the first twenty pages. I couldn’t get enough of it, much like how half of the characters in the book couldn’t get enough cocktails, or heroin, or cigarettes, or crazy bungalow sex. I will be honest with you, fair reader, I am not positive that I completely understood the entire plot. To be fair, neither did Chandler, who allegedly admitted to director Howard Hawks that he had no idea who killed a certain character.
For me, the point wasn’t that I understood who did what when, but that I got to exist in Chandler’s version of 1930s Los Angeles. I loved the clinking drinks and the rainy stakeouts and the enigmatic women and the lyricism (“You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women.”).
I wonder if a book this fun could be written in 2016, or whether people on message boards would complain about the the plotholes so much that everyone thought the book was a failure. I have little patience for that kind of thing. As Chandler wrote, “Shake your business up and pour it. I don’t have all day.”