Books of 2013, #29: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

I’m mildly embarrassed to admit this, but I’d actually never read this before — or, actually, any Chandler (or Hammett, for that matter). I’m really sorry I waited this long. The Big Sleep is an early giant of this genre — and while Dashiell Hammett came earlier, it’s arguably the ur-text of the whole realm.

Reading it, you get a weird little cognitive dissonance here and there as you run across events or dialog that seems like cliches — but then you realize it wasn’t a cliche in 1933. It’s like watching Stagecoach and noting the “tired” Western tropes — they weren’t tried when John Ford used them. Phillip Marlowe is the hard-boiled private eye, refined from Hammett’s Sam Spade: he’s full of whisky and wisecracks, isn’t afraid of violence, and follows an uncompromising personal moral code. Spade and Marlowe’s children are legion — most notably Robert Parker‘s Spenser, but there are countless others ranging widely through genre (for example, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, and Richard Kadrey’s Stark within the world of urban fantasy).

It’s not a long book, but it’s a rich one. You’ll find yourself reading some portions aloud to yourself, even slipping into a snappy patter as you do it, just for the sheer pleasure of saying the words:

“Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”

“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. […] I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”


I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-lounge with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. […] The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem. […]

She had a drink. She took a swallow from it and gave me a cool level stare over the rim of the glass.

“So you’re a private detective,” she said. “I didn’t know they really existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotels.”

There was nothing in that for me, so I let it drift with the current.

A bit later:

I grinned at her with my head on one side. She flushed. Her hot black eyes looked mad. “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”

“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. “I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind you showing me your legs. They’re swell legs, and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

You can hear those rhythms far and wide now, but in 1933, they were new.

Go. Read. Seriously, even if “detective fiction” isn’t really your thing. Chandler was way, way more than a genre writer. His works are well worth your time.

4 thoughts on “Books of 2013, #29: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

  1. Chandler is awesome, but Hammett is the real deal (Hammett, after all, was actually a Pinkerton). His Continental Op is THE ultimate gumshoe. I don’t even think the Op is ever even named. Spade is fun, and the Thin Man series made for some great movie history, but the Op–it’s all about the Op.

    That having been said, I really like reading Chandler’s wise-cracks. If this sort of thing interests you, and you want to read the first of a VERY long series of novels (1934 – 1975), I would recommend “Fer-de-Lance” by Rex Stout, the first of the Nero Wolfe series. Most of the books are collections of short stories and novellas, but they are excellent for reading at short bursts. A&E did a TV series based on several of these stories that is fantastic and equally worth your time.

    Spillane? Well, let’s just say that Spillane is to Chandler as Penthouse Forum is to Henry Miller and leave it at that.

  2. I’d forgotten entirely about Spillane, but maybe I should find me some Hammett. It’s also nice to see you comment here, though I suppose I baited you by slighting Hammett. By the way, how IS Dash? ;)

  3. “I, the Jury” is really the only Spillane I’d call necessary to read. After that, hit You Tube for old Miller Lite commercials.

    Dash is very well, his desperate need for a haircut notwithstanding. He indicated that he would like to go as Thor for Halloween, but I’m ending that tomorrow with a trip to the barbershop.

    If you would like to continue your noir-ish reading, I would further recommend James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, not to mention the very un-noir-ish Mildred Pierce), and to see where the genre ended up, go with Jim Thompson from the 1960s (The Getaway, and The Grifters). All four of those books were made into movies, then three of them remade into movies. Fred MacMurray of “My Three Sons” and Barbara Stanwyck of “Big Valley” become William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat;” Lana Turner and John Garfield become Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson in “Postman;” Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw are crapped upon by Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in “The Getaway.” Most interesting are the directors involved with these–I mean, really, how do you improve on Billy Wilder and Sam Peckinpah? Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” is probably the best of the junior varsity lot there. “The Grifters” was produced by Scorcese, but man, that movie is a hot mess. I understand that Mildred Pierce, which was originally made into a much more dark movie than the book, has been made into a much better mini-series on one of the cable networks recently, but I’ve not seen it.

  4. Well, first, why you gotta crush a boy’s dream like that? THOR THOR THOR THOR THOR!

    Returning to noir:

    I recall “I, the Jury” only from a weird plot thread on MAS*H years ago — well, that, and the Stacy Keach adaptation from years ago on network TV. I’d forgotten until this conversation that HBO also did a Philip Marlowe, with Powers Booth, back in the 80s, btw.

    I saw the Fred MacMurray “Double Indemnity” a few years back; it held up pretty well. It doesn’t take very long to forget “MY Three Sons” once you get sucked in. I did not know, however, that “Body Heat” was a remake; that Kasdan was driving probably makes it worthwhile. I’ll put it on the list. I should also chase down the original DOA and give it another try; the last time, I found myself strongly preferring the Quaid/Ryan remake.

    Which reminds me that Quaid and Ryan also did another sort of noir-y film a few years later, also shot in Texas, called “Flesh and Bone”. It also starred James Caan and a very young and essentially unknown Gwyneth Paltrow in her largest role to date (1993; it was two years before her head-in-a-box sacrificial turn in Se7en).

    I think Erin may have watched the recent Mildred, but I had no idea it was noir-adjacent.