The Big Sleep cemented Raymond Chandler’s place in the literary hall of fame and it did so with a smart-aleck, rarely sober shamus and a plot as important as a torch in daylight. Here’s remembering the quick-witted writer’s debut novel on his 58th death anniversary.
This isn’t a piece about how good Raymond Chandler’s debut novel, The Big Sleep, is. We know that already. Neither is it a systematic pegging down of Chandler’s treatment of women characters: “...you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.”
No, the plan is to simply dive into the story and its impact on one of the most immortal genres of writing. Nearly six decades after his death, Chandler’s novel remains exactly what the man intended it to be: hardboiled detective fiction that doesn’t just walk tenderly across the tightrope between literariness and pulp. It hops and summersaults with wild abandon to the other side.
Non-literary stories use ordinary language in a precise and accurate manner. Their job is to temporarily inform, educate and entertain. Whereas literary works of fiction make aesthetic use of artistic devices to further the plot, leaving an indelible mark on the reader. With The Big Sleep, Chandler throws this theory out of an eighteenth floor window. The characters, their dialogue, the meandering plot exist for one purpose only – to entertain and expose with finesse.
Meet the detective
The Big Sleep introduces us to Philip Marlowe, the lone-wolf, self-loathing private detective who is the central protagonist in all of Chandler’s seven novels. Marlowe’s a straight-shooter who upholds his own sense of moral justice, enjoys the attention of women but rarely ever succumbs to their mine-ridden charms, and drinks like it’s going out of fashion.
Then we have the Sternwood sisters – Carmen and Vivian. Their wheelchair-ridden millionaire father, General Sternwood, sums them up perfectly: “Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them have any more moral sense than a cat...I presume they both had, and still have, all the usual vices.” Marlowe’s been hired to get to the bottom of a blackmail involving Carmen and what seems like a straightforward job quickly unfolds with multiple murders, an erotica-lending library and deadly secrets. All the characters have something to hide.
Murder, he wrote
Before you put this down as a classic whodunit you should know Chandler didn’t care too much about the movement of plot. Like the olive in a martini, he would say. As you near the end of the novel you begin to realise the murders were almost incidental, existing mainly for Chandler to create characters and situations that astonish and delight the reader. And boy, does he go to town with physical descriptions of places, events and people involved!
When Marlowe visits the Sternwood mansion in the second paragraph of the opening chapter, he describes the first thing he sees, “Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”
Here’s Marlowe’s description on seeing Carmen for the first time.
“She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable...She walked as if she were floating...She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain...I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.”
After inspecting a suspected murder made to look like a road accident at the pier, Marlowe is riding back with a copper friend and describes the scene out his window: “We went back along the pier and got into Ohls’ sedan again...drove back towards town along a three-lane highway washed clean by the rain, past low rolling hills of yellow-white sand terraced with pink moss. Seaward a few gulls wheeled and swooped over something in the surf and far out a white yacht looked as if it was hanging in the sky.”
The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it. Chandler’s metaphors and use of adjectives create vivid images in the mind of the reader and help you understand a little more about the characters and places being described.
The Big Sleep is peppered with descriptions that are brought to life with comparisons (“dead men are heavier than broken hearts”), sardonic retorts (“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings”), and Brylcreemed summing-ups (“He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money”, or, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”)
One of the main reasons why this novel stands out among other detective fiction popular at the time is because of its realist approach to crime. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are geniuses whose approach to solving a murder (usually a high-profile one) is more akin to solving the Sunday crossword. Philip Marlowe dives headfirst into the seedy underbelly, dirties his hands to get to the truth, and his sense of justice doesn’t usually end on a happy note.
As The Big Sleep comes to an end, certain characters have got a raw deal or made to face a bitter truth. The novel’s title alludes to death – which has already taken place for some, is round the corner for others, and is metaphorically significant for most of the characters, including Marlowe. “I was part of the nastiness now.”
While the Sternwoods continue living the life of privileged millionaires, Marlowe gets by on $25 a day plus fuel while he’s on the case. But at the end we’re made to realise the great leveller isn’t partial. What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a hill? You were dead, you were sleeping “the big sleep”.
The continuous use of symbolism and metaphors in the novel is what elevates Chandler’s fiction. WH Auden was right when he said Chandler’s thrillers were not escape literature but works of art. The Big Sleep is a cocktail of crime. Its ether-sniffing, slightly deranged femmes fatales are a handful. Not a page goes by without a direct allusion to sex, drugs, booze and violence. Yet it’d be foolish to brand it pulp fiction.
Unknowingly, you will embrace Chandler’s prose from the very beginning. It’s all edge-of-the-seat without trying too hard. The Big Sleep took detective fiction out of the country house and flung it into the street, letting it gather grime, and in doing so, managed to raise it artfully. Raymond Chandler is to detective fiction what Chuck Berry is to rock and roll.