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.