Book Review: The Big Sleep // Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s much imitated but rarely bettered noir classic The Big Sleep holds up over 80 years on.

The Big Sleep is one of the defining works of Crime literature and has spawned a host of admirers and imitators. What is more remarkable is that the novel is over 80 years old, having originally been published in 1939. It has certainly held up remarkably well and is still timely and relevant, having lost none of its potency over the years.  

The novel often features on ‘Best Of’ lists, having appeared in Le Monde’s 100 books of the century, Time’s list of 100 best novels, and the BBC’S Big Read.  The novel continues to earn high praise and win new fans.  Many noted Crime writers in the years following Chandler’s Marlowe novels have gone on to cite him as an influence, including Rebus creator Ian Rankin and Ian Fleming.

Philip Marlowe, the lead figure in The Big Sleep and the rest of Chandler’s works remains an iconic character not just within this particular genre but literary fiction as a whole.  Chandler himself commented in 1951 “It begins to look as though I were tied to this fellow for life.” Marlowe would feature in 7 novels written by Chandler over a 20 year period.  Marlowe’s moral ambiguity and unpredictable nature help keep the novel’s narrative moving forward.

The Big Sleep was somewhat of a sleeper hit at the time of release and gained a wider audience and critical recognition when it was adapted into a Hollywood film in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  The film adaptation has been seen as a classic of its type in its own right, although focusing more on the romantic side elements of Chandler’s text, so the two are quite different beasts.

A relatively slight book, there is an incredible sense of intrigue throughout as our mysterious narrator Marlowe works in seedy LA, investigating the disappearance of a wealthy Socialite’s husband and a series of seemingly unconnected murders.  Many of Marlowe’s traits, cynicism, abrupt nature, and fondness for a few drinks can be found in many later detective novels.  One of the major successes of The Big Sleep is Chandler’s ability to craft two earlier short stories that had little in common and merge them into a such a cohesive and well flowing novel – there really is very little to indicate that the stories had existed separately prior to this novel’s publication.

The novel manages to grip the reader from within the first few paragraphs. The twists and turns in the array of cases never cease to impress, and never once do the wheels feel like they’re going to fall off. It is such a meticulously well-written novel evoking Chandler’s unique style that he would continue to earn praise for in later works The Long Goodbye and Farewell My Lovely.  

There is an undercurrent of humour throughout the novel, that counterbalances some of its heavier moments perfectly and ensures that this is never a bleak depressing foray into LA’s criminal underworld. However, some of the figures encountered by Marlowe really do feel particularly rotten. Obviously being written in the 30s there may be an expectation that the novel feels dated. Obviously, some of the social issues addressed are of their time somewhat, but he never takes the period for granted and reading it now, you feel like you are sucked into the murky world of late 30s LA.

As a fan of crime fiction, it is easy to see why The Big Sleep is cited by so many writers and authors as one of the high points of this particular genre, however, it never feels clichéd in this regard and feels vital and fresh in a number of ways, Chandler’s prose is refreshing, blending humour, pathos, and suspense. The timeframe of these novels rarely feels dated as can be the case with other authors of its era.  This is a must for any fans of crime fiction and its fingerprints can be seen on many future greats within the genre.

Words by Chris Connor

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