The Pequod Review:
Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, is astonishingly well-developed, but his talent did not emerge from nowhere. Chandler had previously written at least twenty short stories for Black Mask and similar magazines, and used this period to improve his writing ability, refine his plots (many of which would be reused in his novels), and most crucially develop his central character: detective Philip Marlowe. One of the most remarkable characters in all of detective fiction, Marlowe is by the time of The Big Sleep fully-formed — a tough and honorable detective, one of the good guys, but also flawed, elusive and self-critical.
Chandler (1888-1959) would write seven Marlowe novels, most of which feature excellent characters and striking descriptive details, as well as a strong sense of place — generally Los Angeles, and especially its seedier side. His books have weak narratives (he claimed he was “fundamentally rather uninterested in the plot”), and most of his work does not to my mind hold up to the other giants of his era like Hammett and Cain, or even Ross Macdonald. But he created a wholly unique hard-boiled prose style that frequently built to penetrating characters studies.
In this first novel, Marlowe is hired by a dying millionaire to investigate an attempt to blackmail his daughter. The real pleasures lie not in the story, but in Chandler’s atmospheric settings. Here for example, is how he draws the reader in at the start of Chapter 22:
It was about ten-thirty when the little yellow-sashed Mexican orchestra got tired of playing a low-voiced, prettied-up rumba that nobody was dancing to. The gourd player rubbed his fingertips together as if they were sore and got a cigarette into his mouth almost with the same movement. The other four, with a timed simultaneous stoop, reached under their chairs for glasses from which they sipped, smacking their lips and flashing their eyes. Tequila, their manner said. It was probably mineral water. The pretense was as wasted as the music. Nobody was looking at them.
The room had been a ballroom once and Eddie Mars had changed it only as much as his business compelled him. No chromium glitter, no indirect lighting from behind angular cornices, no fused glass pictures, or chairs in violent leather and polished metal tubing, none of the pseudo-modernistic circus of the typical Hollywood night trap. The light was from heavy crystal chandeliers and the rose-damask panels of the wall were still the same rose damask, a little faded by time and darkened by dust, that had been matched long ago against the parquetry floor, of which only a small glass-smooth space in front of the little Mexican orchestra showed bare. The rest was covered by a heavy old-rose carpeting that must have cost plenty. The parquetry was made of a dozen kinds of hardwood, from Burma teak through half a dozen shades of oak and ruddy wood that looked like mahogany, and fading out to the hard pale wild lilac of the California hills, all laid in elaborate patterns, with the accuracy of a transit.
And it has extraordinary moments of self-reflection from Marlowe:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
This is one of Raymond Chandler's best books.