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Having just climbed in through the window, the PI considers: "Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead". Classic Chandler, classic Marlowe.
If that sentence doesn't make you smile, you're probably not going to enjoy Chandler – you're certainly not going to waste your time on more than maybe one of the Marlowe mysteries.
If it does make you smile, and if you can leave aside the fact that like the rest of us you still get Chandler and Hammett mixed up and can't tell your Philip Marlowe from your Sam Spade (for which blame Bogie for having played both!) then pour a drink, turn the lights down as low as you can still read by, and let's start at the beginning.
''The Big Sleep'' is the first of the true Marlowe novels, although some argue that Chandler's earlier short stories feature the same character under different names. It sets the tone for one of the most famous Private Eye's in history. We should stick to the Americanism for Marlowe. He is a P.I., a "dick" from the days when that wasn't quite such a derogatory expression with a completely different derivation. He is not, necessarily, a "detective" in cerebral sense of say, Sherlock Homes or Inspector Morse. He is definitely not a "cop".
He is the kind of guy who works out of two room office in an imperfect building on a less than high-profile street. His outer office is left open in the hope that a client might happen by, and might care enough to wait. The inner office is kept locked – in case such a client might be curious enough to discover that half of the filing cabinets in there are just for show (they're empty).
He is the kind of guy who hates to carry a gun. But generally does.
He might be the kind of guy who will intimidate if he thinks it'll work, and certainly one who won't hesitate to shoot if he's got to the position of having the gun in his hand. But he is also the chivalrous knight. The tough guy with a soft spot for the ladies. Not just the dolls and the women – and yes, he'll take them on if they're offering – but the ladies, the innocents, the gentle of the gentler sex, who get mixed up in stuff beyond them: those he'll protect and shelter from a basic instinct which has little to do with sex, though possibly everything to do with gender as understood at the time the books were written.
He's a loner. "…a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things…both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens…nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life".
None of this is to do the character a disservice. "Detecting" isn't quite what he does, but "investigating" is. Chandler has a tendency to hide away the leg-work that he has Marlowe do, often only revealing it after the event: the time he spends in the libraries and making interminable phone calls and following up cold leads. He lets slip that this does need to be done, in order to keep us Marlowe's side. Otherwise the guy would just 'get lucky' and that wouldn't satisfy. The insights are shown to be earned.
I always say "read the book first" – but with Chandler anyone of my age will have seen the films before reading the books and it is hard to shift the image and rely entirely on the written word. For once I'm not sure it matters. Think about Bogie in those 1940s black and white movies. The film style and the casting were perfect. Those movies may have taken a liberty or two, as films always do, but what you see is what Chandler wrote. That IS Marlowe.
These stories may be set in LA, but this isn't sunshiny star-lit Hollywood. This is the seedy dark streets and the hills above and the rain-lashed roads in and out of town. It rains a lot. Most of the action takes place after dark. In the 1930s and 1940s LA wasn't as well-lit as it is now, we need to remember that. For that reason alone, it helps to have the film noir style in your head to remember the era, and not fall into the trap of trying to lift the stories into a modern time-slot where they simply wouldn't work.
These are period pieces and have to be read as such.
The title "The Big Sleep" needs no explanation. It gets none, until the very last page. That in itself is Chandleresque. He doesn't go in for big explanations. He has Marlowe tell you what happened. It's up to you to work out what it means, if it means anything.
Having Marlowe tell the story does mean that you know that one way or another he is going to survive. These books predate the modern fad for having tales told beyond the grave. Stylistically, Marlowe's tone is THE defining aspect of the work. You will adore it, or be unutterably irritated by it.
I love it.
It is a wonderful mixture of arrogance and self-deprecation. Marlowe KNOWS that he is brilliant. He also knows that it's not doing him that much good this far. First person narratives are notoriously difficult to pull off, but Chandler does it with aplomb. He doesn't feel the need to explain the point of view from which his PI his telling his story, but I don't get the feeling that it's from any distance. This isn't an old man looking back over his career in crime. It's a chap in a bar (possibly an illegal bar) talking up what happened a year or so back. The tone is conversational, direct, and aimed at you. It's also part confessional, part sales pitch.
Of course it helps that the guy is also the undisputed American master of the one-liner: a champion of the bon-mot worthy of challenging Oscar Wilde. The sheer picturesque of the language is one of the primary delights of reading these old detective tales, not just in the sharpness of Marlowe's conversational ripostes, which I'll spare you because they only work in context, but also in the snippets of description "A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the moist boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness."
Marlowe announces himself at beginning of The Big Sleep as being "neat clean shaved sober and I didn't care who knew it… I was calling on four million dollars". He describes a "broad" in the stained glass window as not having any clothes on "but some very long and convenient hair".
The four million dollars in question is the Sternwood family. The patriarch General Sternwood is ancient, ailing, confined to a wheelchair. He is also being blackmailed. This may or may not relate to the gambling debts of his younger daughter. Both of Sternwood's daughters are somewhat wayward – even by the standards of the rich of the time. There is also a missing husband, a dealer in antique books and (obviously) a touch of the real underworld of casino bosses and secretive financial dealings. Oh yes, and it isn't long before dead bodies start tuning up. Within a scant few pages you just know that the "powder blue suit" our clean shaven hero was wearing on page one is not really suitable attire for the job in hand.
From page one the pace does not let up. It's all action and dialogue. If there are one or two linguistic quirks that have slipped into the dimness of time or never made it across the Atlantic in the first place, that simply adds to the atmosphere and can be ignored in terms of precise meaning.
The Big Sleep is a relatively slim volume, clocking in at a sharp 250 pages, but it is everything a murder mystery should be: sharp, slick, crafty, thought-provoking (in terms of making you want to get the solution before the protagonist does, and in terms of simply "making you think!" about the context and wider issues, without offering a stance on any of them). It is a joy to read and satisfying to finish. And it is only the beginning!
There are no doubt many editions of the work available. I read the Penguin paperback 2011 edition, with Ian Rankin's introduction. ISBN: 978-0-241-95628-1 250 pages Cover price £8.99