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Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

This is a triple challenge book for me: A Top Mystery, a TBR book and a What’s in a Name read. I can now strike out the “size” title in the last one.

Genre: Hardboiled detective story
Year of publication: 1939
Setting & time: The Los Angeles area, USA; contemporary

Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood to look into a blackmail attempt, but more may be at stake. The General’s older daughter thinks he has been hired to find her husband, who has been missing for several weeks, and the younger daughter wants to have some fun with him and will not take ‘no’ for an answer. Before long, Marlowe has uncovered some criminal goings-on, including not only blackmail, but also gambling, illegal pornography and murder.

Raymond Chandler was a master storyteller, and also had a way with words and poetic and startling turns of phrase pop up from time to time, usually when Marlowe is contemplating things. Characterisations are simple but just escape being flat, but the narrative is plot driven and so not much time is spent on drawing up the characters. I found the story so clearly episodic that it was like reading a collection of closely interconnected short stories rather than a novel, but in the final episode everything was tied up and the final missing pieces fell into place.

I really, really liked this story. Marlowe is a contradictory but likable character with a clear voice and an interesting outlook on life. He is philosophical and poetic, stoical and has good control over his emotions and reactions and only uses violence as a last resort, something I find very appealing after having read many, many stories where brawn is made to stand in for brains. The story, despite its episodic nature, is gripping, but not so much that one needs to finish it in one sitting. The breaks are pretty distinct and make good stopping places.

One can see so much in this story that has been imitated, reversed, parodied and played with in later writings, much of which is not an improvement on the original. One can also see how Chandler has taken the work of his predecessors in the hardboiled genre and polished it, in some instances by smoothing and in others by sharpening. His outlook seems to be generally positive, which makes this story seem less dark than, for example, Hammett’s fatalistic The Maltese Falcon or the cynical The Glass Key, and that difference is made by Marlowe, who, while given to occasional bouts of morose contemplation, nevertheless comes across as a generally upbeat character. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 69
Place on the list(s): CWA # 2; MWA # 8
Awards: None I know of


George said…
Raymond Chandler is the best stylist who wrote private eye novels. Sometimes, his books have plot problems, but the writing is always strong. The film version of THE BIG SLEEP is a classic, too.

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