Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler, 21 January – 1 March, 2010.
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep has everything going for it. It has, first, a great lead character in Phillip Marlowe (hailed as inspiration for Hammett’s Sam Spade in the previous offering, The Maltese Falcon). His mind and tongue are sharp in equal measure, making him an intelligent and witty leading man.
Also going for it is a great ensemble of characters, and more than that – carefully planned and brilliantly executed relationships between them. In addition to obvious clashes and allegiences, Chandler carefully crafts a developing relationship between Marlowe and Norris, General Sternwood’s butler. Something similar happens with Vivan Regan (nee Sternwood), who goes from hostile to hussy to human.
In addition, The Big Sleep has going for it a complex plot involving blackmail, pornography, something of a criminal underworld and – of course – murder. Personal undertones of promiscuity, homosexuality, infidelity and pride are blended through the narrative and the NYPD’s back-patting is well written.
So, with all this going for it… why do I feel like there was something missing? Why do I feel like I read the start of the book, and the end, and missed out the good bit in the middle? This is why: because, although Chandler knew where the plot was headed, the audience didn’t, and not in a good way. Marlowe does seem to just do what he fancies and gets swept along indifferently, so we don’t know what he’s really investigating or why he’s doing it. Many detectives, when they’re off the case, carry on against orders out of passion. But Marlowe isn’t motivated by passion, he’s motivated by money. So why he persisted along some loose lines of inquiry is beyond me.
And, in one of the most famous literary gaffes of all time – to which Chandler subsequently held his hands up in a letter – he forgot to solve one of the murders!! I won’t spoil the story by naming the victim for those who haven’t read it, but as murder mysteries go, I’d expect it to be a given.
Having said that, The Big Sleep is worth a read and has, as I said, a great deal going for it.