The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler coverIt’s probably a fair assumption to make that most people know the name The Big Sleep from the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall vehicle that is the 1946 movie.

Before that though it was the debut novel of hardboiled detective writer Raymond Chandler and it introduced the world to his most famous creation, private eye, Phillip Marlowe.

Having seen the film a couple of times in the past I had been left underwhelmed. Certainly Bogart and Bacall filled the screen and their on-screen (and apparently off-screen) chemistry is the stuff of legend, but, beyond that, it failed to connect with the plot getting lost and becoming famously confusing.

When I saw the book on the shelves of LA’s Last Bookstore though it still leapt out at me as a vision of a lost Hollywood and Los Angeles before it became the dystopian megalopolis of today, when orange groves and oil fields still stood a stone’s throw from the growing glamour of film studios and the grimy streets of an underground vice scene.

Chandler’s novel, delivered in the first person from the point of view of Marlowe, is the perfect evocation of this. Dry and cynical enough to be believable but packed with the kind of detail that really brings it to life whether it’s rainy days, foggy nights or mysterious, dilapidated office buildings, you can almost smell it all.

Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler

This style of Hardboiled delivery (that became noir in cinema) is now a cliché, but, back then, I can imagine it being something at least relatively fresh, developing on a combination of pulp fiction and the more staid detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, to create something that rushes along at pace but never misses out the crucial plot twists so it all flows together and we find out the revelations along with Marlowe.

The story equally combines these aspects with murder, vice and bribery rubbing shoulders and Marlowe, trapped between his clients, the police and his conscience, as he follows the labyrinthine twists and turns that all stem from a meeting with a dying general, worried for his daughter.

Unlike the film the relationship between Marlowe and Mrs Regan (in the movie Bacall’s character is renamed Mrs Rutledge) is very much a side feature.

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
Bogart as Marlowe

While it has a certain frisson it is no more than he has with all the female characters to whom he may be a hero by action but far from a knight in shining armour, perfectly fitting the dark and bleak atmosphere where everyone exists in shades of grey.

While the plot is absorbing and Marlowe is a great lead player who takes us through this, to me the highlight of The Big Sleep is the way it paints its world with enough believability to make it feel real with healthy dose of extra spice to make it that something more, creating something truly iconic in its surprisingly damp, (less surprisingly) dark and corrupt vision of old Los Angeles.

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