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Book Review: The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler, 1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

This is the evocative and ominous opening sentence of Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, one of my other holiday reads, and now one of my all-time favourites. As a huge fan of the noir genre, I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read this book, but it certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s mesmerising, atmospheric, iconic – it ticks so many boxes.

The Big Sleep is the first book to feature Chandler’s effortlessly cool PI protagonist, Philip Marlowe, who, after taking on a job investigating a blackmail attempt on the wealthy and dissipated Sternwood family, is sucked into a vortex of corruption and murder.

I was instantly immersed in the dark, rainy, sleazy world of Chandler’s LA, and captivated by his hardboiled lyrical prose. For example, as Marlowe meets his employer, General Sternwood, in a humid greenhouse, we get this passage:

“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.”

Chandler was a genius when it came to crafting elegant turns of phrase, similes and witticisms, all written in a style that belies the essential pulpiness of the subject matter.

The plot itself is exciting and fast-paced. There are a lot of characters, and lots of twists and turns that can be hard to keep track of, but ultimately I don’t think that The Big Sleep deserves its reputation for being too labyrinthine for its own good – everything made sense to me. Frankly I think a lot of its bad rep comes from the Bogart and Bacall film adaptation, which is impossible to follow because lots of details had to be cut out for the censors. The novel doesn’t have this problem, so don’t let it put you off.

One of the first things I did when I got back to London was to buy the next Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely, and I’m so excited to read the rest of them. Chandler fully deserves his reputation as the king of noir and the father of crime fiction.

Edition:

Penguin | 2005 | 251p | Paperback | Buy here

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