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The Big Sleep ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (3)

    But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor
           -Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art Of Murder

By the time Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, in 1939, the private detective story had already--thanks in large part to the template established in The Maltese Falcon (1930)(Dashiell Hammett 1894-1961)  (Grade: A+)--become genre fiction.  The elements were all firmly in place: first person narration; more metaphors and similes than you can shake a stick at; a lone, hard drinking, tough guy detective; an ex-cop of some kind, frustrated by the corrupt system of justice; beset by a convoluted case set among the upper classes; femme fatales;  temperamental gunsels; disappearing corpses; hostile police and prosecutors; and so on.  But both Chandler and Ross MacDonald demonstrated that working within that genre it was possible to produce great literature--which The Big Sleep definitely is.

Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is the quintessential knight errant.  When first we meet him in The Big Sleep, he is entering the Sternwood mansion, about to be hired by General Sternwood:

    The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high.  Over the entrance doors, which
    would have let in a troop of indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a
    knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some
    very long and convenient hair.  The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable,
    and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting
    anywhere.  I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to
    climb up there and help him.  He didn't seem to be really trying.

Sternwood, though elderly and decrepit, has two young daughters, who are continually getting into trouble.  The General hires Marlowe to clear up the matter of some gambling debts incurred by the younger girl, Carmen.  At the same time, he mentions, but does not ask Marlowe to investigate, the mysterious disappearance of his son-in-law, an ex-IRA officer, ex-bootlegger, of whom the General was extremely fond.

Marlowe's investigation leads him into a litter of corpses, a pornography ring, thickets of mobsters and dirty cops, and the increasing realization that Carmen Sternwood, though childlike, is no innocent.  Marlowe's ideals run up against the pervasive corruption of modern Los Angeles.  Returning home to his apartment one night, Marlowe finds a nude Carmen in his bed.  While attempting to get rid of her, he turns his attention to a chess problem:

    I looked down at the chessboard.  The move with the knight was wrong.  I put it back where I had
    moved it from.  Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights

When he finally orders her to leave, Carmen begins hissing and spitting at him like some kind of animal.  Like the woman in the stained-glass panel, Carmen is a nude damsel in distress, but she is no lady, so what point is there to Marlowe's code of chivalry?

Ultimately, Carmen turns out to be even more of a monster than Marlowe imagines, responsible for the death of Regan, and he ends up betraying his own ideals in order to protect the General.  Having cut a deal with the older Sternwood daughter to have Carmen committed to an institution, he is most troubled by his failure to secure justice for Regan:

    What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on
    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. Me, I was part of the nastiness
    now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be.  He could lie
    quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting.  His heart was a
    brief, uncertain murmur.  His thoughts were as gray as ashes.  And in a little while he too, like
    Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

I think he's being a little too hard on himself here.  Carmen is pretty clearly psychotic and it's hard to see what good purpose would be achieved by turning her over to the machinations of the law.  Certainly Marlowe has helped cover up her crimes, but neither he nor she stand to gain from this.  Allowing the General to go to his grave innocent of the reality of his daughter's evil simply doesn't seem like such a bad trade off in this instance.

Amazingly, Chandler may have only been rescued from obscurity by the fine film version of this novel--at the time of the movie's release, 1946, none of his novels were in print.  This would have been a terrible loss to American fiction; Marlowe is our modern Don Quixote (see Orrin's review), trying to hold back the tide of modernity by upholding an antiquated, but still compelling, code of honor.


Grade: (A+)


Raymond Chandler Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Raymond Chandler
    -ESSAY: An Old-Fashioned Future: On the enduring fascination of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. (Peter Hitchens, 12/20/23, American Conservative)
    -ESSAY: No Big Sleep for Raymond Chandler (Dick Lochte, April 19, 2014, LA Review of Books)
-ESSAY: WHY DID RAYMOND CHANDLER HATE STRANGERS ON A TRAIN SO INTENSELY?: Chandler's feud with Alfred Hitchcock had a special venom, but why? (DWYER MURPHY, 2/18/21, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Revisiting Raymond Chandler’s most iconic lines (Dan Sheehan, July 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: ‘Dead men are heavier than broken hearts’: Author Raymond Chandler and the Great War (Tom Hawthorn, Winter 2020, HistoryNet)
    -ESSAY: Why Marlowe is still the chief of detectives: Fifty years after Raymond Chandler died, we need his ‘shop-soiled’ Galahad Philip Marlowe as much as ever to put our mixed-up world to rights. (Mick Hume, 12/30/09, Spiked Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: WHY DID RAYMOND CHANDLER HATE STRANGERS ON A TRAIN SO INTENSELY?: Chandler's feud with Alfred Hitchcock had a special venom, but why? (DWYER MURPHY, 2/18/21, Crime Reads)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: CHANDLER AND THE FOX: THE MID-CENTURY CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN RAYMOND CHANDLER AND JAMES M. FOX: Chandler's letters to a younger crime writer offer a revealing—and often ugly—glimpse into his later years. (CURTIS EVANS, 10/08/20, Crime Reads)


-REVIEW ESSAY: IS ALTMAN’S 'THE LONG GOODBYE' THE MOST OVERRATED CRIME FILM OF 1973?: The answer may depend on whether it's actually a crime film. (ANDREW NETTE, 3/23/23, CrimeReads)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Revisit: The Long Goodbye (A.C. Koch, 1/17/23, Spectrum Culture)

Book-related and General Links:
-BIO: Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "raymond chandler"
    -FEATURED AUTHORS: NY Times Book Review
    -Raymond Chandler's Ten Commandments For the Detective Novel (Thrilling Detective)
    -Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) (Bohemian Ink)
    -BIBLIO: Raymond Thornton Chandler
    -Raymond Chandler
    -The Raymond Chandler Website: scholarship and information about Raymond Chandler
    -Trouble is my Business: A Raymond Chandler Tribute
    -Crime Writers (David King)
    -Philip Marlowe Created by Raymond Chandler (Thrilling Detective)
    -Shamus: A Tribute to Philip Marlowe
    -Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler (from Shamus)
    -Raymond Chandler (David J. King)
    -Raymond Chandler (Rara-Avis)
    -Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959) (History of Mystery)
    -Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles
    -AMAZON LINKED BIBLIO: Big Bill's Raymond Chandler (UK) Stuff!
    -ESSAY: Stalking Raymond Chandler's Spirit  By TOM STOPPARD
    -ESSAY: An Introduction to the Big Sleep (The Raymond Chandler Website)
    -ESSAY: 45 Calibrations of Raymond Chandler (Peter Straub, Conjunctions)
    -ESSAY: Raymond Chandler and His Followers (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (Random House)
    -REVIEW: of the Big Sleep (ISAAC ANDERSON , NY Times, February 12, 1939)
    -REVIEW: of RAYMOND CHANDLER Stories and Early Novels & RAYMOND CHANDLER Later Novels (Robert B. Parker, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Joyce Carol Oates: The Simple Art of Murder, NY Review of Books
        Stories and Early Novels by Raymond Chandler
        Later Novels and Other Writings by Raymond Chandler
    -REVIEW: of The Big Sleep (Mystery Guide)
    -REVIEW: of SELECTED LETTERS OF RAYMOND CHANDLER Edited by Frank MacShane (Larry McMurtry, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction 1909-1959  ed by Tom Hiney & Frank MacShane (Hamish Hamilton, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction 1909-1959  ed by Tom Hiney & Frank MacShane (Will Cohu, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction 1909-1959, Edited by Tom Hiney & Frank MacShane (Peter Temple, The Age)
    -REVIEW : of The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction (Michael Blowen, Boston Globe )
    -REVIEW: of POODLE SPRINGS By Raymond Chandler and Robert B.Parker (Ed McBain, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PERCHANCE TO DREAM Robert B. Parker's Sequel to Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep." By Robert B. Parker (Martin Amis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction Edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane (Robert McCrum , books unlimited)
    -REVIEW : of The Chandler Papers (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of  Raymond Chandler: A biography by Tom Hiney (Kevin Macdonald , books unlimited)
    -REVIEW: of Raymond Chandler: A Biography By Tom Hiney (R. W. B. LEWIS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Raymond Chandler by Tom Hiney (Anthony LeJeune, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Raymond Chandler: A Biography By Tom Hiney (Allen Barra, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW: of Raymond Chandler A Biography by Tom Hiney ( Martin Edwards, Tangled Web)
    -REVIEW: of Raymond Chandler A Biography by Tom Hiney (YVONNE CRITTENDEN -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Raymond Chandler: a  Biography by Tom Hiney (Grey Gowrie, booksunlimited uk)

    -BUY IT: The Big Sleep on DVD (Amazon)
    -BUY IT: The Big Sleep on VHS (Amazon)
    -INFO: The Big Sleep (1946)(Imdb)
    -INFO: The Big Sleep (1946)(Film Site)
    -SCREENPLAY: (William Faulkner)
    -REVIEW: (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -Film Noir and Pulp Fiction
    -Martin's Film Noir Page
    -BOOK REVIEW: Michael Wood: Looking Good, NY Review of Books
        Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy
        Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich
        The Big Sleep by David Thomson
        Howard Hawks American Artist edited by Jim Hillier and Peter Wollen

    -African American Mystery Page
    -Black Street Fiction
    -Crime Writers (David King)
    -Dangerous Dames: A Timeline of Some of the Major Female Eyes (Thrilling Detectives)
    -Edgar Award: Best First Novel
    -Film Noir and Pulp Fiction
    -A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
    -Gumshoe Site
    -Hardboiled : online reference site for all things noir
    -Hardboiled Heaven
    -Hard Boiled Noir Webring
    -Martin's Film Noir Page
    -Mysterious Home Page The Online Mystery Network
    -Mystery Net Awards Page
    -No Night Sweats
    -RARA-AVIS : mailing list devoted to the discussion of hardboiled (and noir) fiction
    -The Reader's Corner presents  Female Sleuths
    -Thrilling Detective Website
    -Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
    -Women of Mystery (Bookaholic)