The Big Sleep

Uh-huh. I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you’ll think of me, I’ll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep has long been celebrated as a classic of hardboiled detective fiction. It has all the ingredients of a good detective story: a wealthy family full of secrets, a lone private investigator who must navigate his way through a world that is not his own, and an assortment of unsavory characters whose misdeeds reveal a dark underside to the city. Yet the novel, for all its hardboiled tropes, also engages in a surprisingly fanciful style, at once vivid in its descriptions and over-generous in its metaphors. Its protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is a narrator with a true flair for narration; he develops his story consciously, with well-honed wit and remarkable attention to detail. This striking narrator is one the key elements that makes this novel so worthwhile, a story to be revisited again and again. While the shock of every revelation may fade over time, the delight in spending some time with the witty, and even noble, Philip Marlowe remains. The Big Sleep is a mystery novel, yes, but it adheres to that formula only to a point. Everything beyond that is pure literature, the work of a skillful writer making the most of his medium, just as his character, Marlowe, makes the most of his sordid surroundings. Thus The Big Sleep is a triumph of style, and a worthy read for mystery devotees and skeptics alike.

The story begins auspiciously enough. Philip Marlowe is dressed to the nines—even sober, for once—and, as he puts it, “calling on four million dollars.” He has been summoned by the elderly, ailing General Sternwood to the Sternwood’s grand mansion, ostensibly to take care of a blackmailing case. Marlowe immediately feels sympathetic toward the man, and agrees to the case, even though he suspects that there is something more at stake than mere blackmail. As he is drawn further and further into a seedy world full of gambling, underground pornography, and even murder, he realizes how much has gone on without General Sternwood’s knowledge. His encounters with Sternwood’s wild young daughters, the alluring Vivian, whose husband, Rusty, has long-since disappeared, and the unpredictable Carmen, whose particular brand of coquetry involves acting like a slow-witted child, convince him of his duty to make things right for the dying old man. Even when the bodies start to pile up, and his own life is in danger, Marlowe, a sort of knight figure, remains committed to solving the case. Though he may act the hardened cynic, disdainful of all the world, his internal narration reveals a sensitive side, and an unshakeable moral center.

Philip Marlowe is not like the criminals with whom he interacts, and the first person narration is one way of making this clear. While other hardboiled detectives, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, are inscrutable, and not clearly aligned with or separate from the criminals, Philip Marlowe is defined by his voice; it is through this voice that we get a sense not only of his cleverness, but also of his difference. When Marlowe observes that the Sternwood’s large entryway “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants,” he is flexing a muscle, asserting his otherness. As long as he can think creatively, and see the world through unique eyes, he can be sure that the job has not gotten to him; he is still living by his own code. Of course, Marlowe’s code is complex at times, and he is not above mistreating someone to achieve his goals. Still, in a world of criminals, in which anyone will sell out anyone else, and for hardly any reason at all, Marlowe is one of the few decent people, someone for whom honor still has some meaning. He is the perfect guide for our journey into such an unsavory world: he can navigate within it, but he will never truly be a part of it. Thus we can enjoy the adventure without forfeiting our morality.

In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler introduces his readers to a protagonist who defies categorization: he is cynical but sentimental, sarcastic but whimsical, surrounded by death and degradation yet perpetually witty. We may say that this too defines the novel: the fact that it resists definition. The Big Sleep is a hard-boiled mystery, of course, but it is also a stunning stylistic achievement. It is not a mystery to be consumed rapidly and then tossed aside, but rather a discovery that is nuanced enough to welcome vastly different re-readings. And, although The Big Sleep may be held up as that shining example of a quality detective novel, rather than simply a quality novel, this does not mean that it is limited by its genre. Perhaps we are just limited by our definitions.

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