Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (Book Review)

The classic noir novel The Big Sleep has in many ways not aged well. The female characters are petty, childlike, and even get smacked around a bit by the hero. That pervasive sexism is eclipsed by section in the middle with vicious, angry homophobia. And the famous “convoluted plot” (so complex that author Raymond Chandler reportedly forgot who shot one of the characters!) is actually pretty straightforward compared to a modern heist or mystery movie. (To The Big Sleep’s advantage, though, the plot twists feel more natural here, whereas many stories today go out of their way to cram in surprises.) And the ending, whose pop psychology probably seemed right to people in 1939, feels forced and unbelievable today.

But the core of the story still works surprisingly well. The main draw is Philip Marlowe, the private investigator at the center of this mystery. Confident and street-smart, he always lands on his feet (if not without much profit), and is in control even when on the wrong side of a gun. Almost everyone Marlowe meets is scared, hiding secrets, and making stupid decisions, but as the hero he sees right through them. This is a compelling fantasy. Like a cool friend we can aspire to be, seeing the world through Marlowe’s eyes makes us feel like we’re also smarter than everyone else.

The writing feels a little clichéd, of course. This story is the template for the hard-boiled PI, and everything is appropriately harsh and gritty. Marlowe uses metaphors of crime and violence just to describe everyday scenes, because that’s what is on his mind. While it does get ridiculous at times, most of it feels more natural than I’d expect. Lines like “dead mean are heavier than broken hearts” are easy to laugh at in isolation, but build a consistent character and worldview in their place.

The Big Sleep has some real strengths, and still works if you have the right sensibilities. Overall, though, I can’t quite recommend it. The book’s best parts can be found in other works today, without the offensive parts and dated references.

Grade: C+

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