I can’t help reading books like this without thinking of them as “film noir books,” even though the books came before the film adaptations. And I could not read this book without hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head, as the narrator.
The Big Sleep features private detective Philip Marlowe, who gets called in on what seems like a routine blackmail case for a wealthy old man, then finds himself driving through the winding rainy streets of Los Angeles investigating a murder, a pornography dealer, a missing person, and two beautiful, wealthy sisters with questionable moral principles. I had to laugh, because this is sort-of-almost-exactly the plot of “The Big Lebowski.” I had known that the Coen brothers (I looooove their movies) based that movie on the old LA detective stories, but I didn’t know just how much it had clearly been inspired by this book: “Young trophy wife, owes money all over town, including to known pornographers,” is really not that far off. Except, no, there is no rug involved. No bowling, either. And, perhaps most tragically, no Karl Hungus. But I still really enjoyed the book! It boasts some incredibly stylish prose, and some of the best similes I’ve ever read: “”The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.” Apparently, Chandler is famous for these kinds of descriptions.
The book is a flagrant product of its time, in terms of the casual misogyny, homophobia, and racism that run through it. Though I found some of it surprising, I couldn’t exactly be offended, because the setting, plot, and language all anchor the book firmly in a very specific setting that felt far removed from reality.
If you end up reading it and feeling, about halfway through, that you have no idea what the hell is going on, don’t worry; I didn’t either. Though the plot ends up making sense, the point is actually the surprisingly sophisticated philosophical undertone.
It occurs to me as I’m writing this (and this may be humorously obvious to those of you who are more astute or have read any criticism on this book) that Philip Marlowe is probably a deliberate reference to the narrator, Marlowe, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This time, the year is 1939, and the heart of darkness is in L.A. Like Conrad’s book, The Big Sleep questions whether we can trudge into the jungle and find a good man lost in its mires. Now, if you know anything about film noir, you know that the genre is based on the assumption that this is not possible. If the world you know is always falling apart in one way or another, all you can do is work out some personal set of morals that allows you to sleep at night. Of course, as Marlowe points out, when you sleep the big sleep, none of that really matters anymore, anyway.