This was the choice for the Reading Group for February and a happy choice it was too. One of my targets for this year is to read some vintage mystery novels, so this fitted the bill perfectly. The Big Sleep is pretty well known to me, but from the film versions, especially the classic 1946 version with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I have never read any of Chandler’s works before, so was quite intrigued by the prospect.
The book was published in 1939 and is Chandler’s first in this genre. It must have been a sensation then, and is still a pretty powerful read to-day. Like most crime novels of that period, it is reasonably short and easy to read. It is not quite so easy to follow as the plot meanders about a bit and things happen in very quick succession. The novel of course features Philip Marlowe, the original hard boiled private detective. He is a tough no nonsense cookie, with a wise cracking way with words, who likes to get straight to the point about everything. In the novel he is commissioned to investigate a case of blackmail, but lurking in the background, though not very far in the background, is a missing person case.
To solve these mysteries Marlowe is quickly immersed in the seedy underworld of 1930s Los Angeles, where pornography, gambling, blackmail and corruption were rife. As was murder. I counted at least five murders in the novel. With such a rate of death there is little time in the novel for reflection or meditation on the meaning of life. The novel does though cast a light on the darker side of LA in the thirties. The novel though is carried by the character of Marlowe himself. He is the narrator and we see everything through his eyes. Though working on the margins of society and dealing with all kinds of dubious and dishonest people, Marlowe himself is scrupulously honest and highly moral. He has no difficulties in resisting sexual advances or offers of bribery. He is also, perhaps unexpectedly rather compassionate and understanding of the weaknesses of others. Possibly just too much of a good guy.
Whatever, this is a fast paced thriller which kept me engrossed from start to finish. Chandler keeps the action tight and moving along at a cracking pace. He is also very detailed in his descriptions of places, buildings, rooms and people, which must have helped make the novel so attractive to film makers.