How much do we owe yesterday’s literary greats? Enough to forgive them the racism, sexism, and homophobia that so often crops up in some of their work? I for one am inclined to be tolerant, since I recognize how much our culture has evolved in recent decades. But it’s sometimes hard to take nonetheless. And that’s the biggest problem I’ve had with The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler‘s classic first Philip Marlowe novel.
If you’re not familiar with the name Philip Marlowe, think Humphrey Bogart, who played him onscreen. As Chandler himself said of Bogart after the filming of The Big Sleep, “Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also, he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt.” All of which comes through clearly in the novel.
The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1) by Raymond Chandler (1939) 234 pages ★★★★☆
The classic first Philip Marlowe novel
The Big Sleep was published in 1939, well before the US entry into World War II. The country was still reeling from the Great Depression after nearly a decade. General Sternwood, the wealthy man who hires Marlowe at the outset of the story, is said to have a fortune of four million dollars. Translate that into today’s deflated currency, and it’s roughly $80 million.
Wise-guy patter and acting tough
The story revolves around General Sternwood’s two spoiled young daughters. Carmen is not yet eighteen, and she’s not very bright. Vivian, who’s several years older and clearly more intelligent, was briefly married to a former IRA brigade commander who suddenly left her months earlier. And somehow her husband’s disappearance seems to be connected to the blackmail attempt that the general has hired Marlowe to thwart. This being hard-boiled fiction, Marlowe will naturally have many opportunities to show off his wide-guy patter and act tough. And of course he’ll discover that all the threads he’s following as he digs deeper into the circumstances surrounding the blackmail effort are closely intertwined.
It’s easy to see how this novel has come to be seen as a template for the hard-boiled detective tales of the 1940s and 50s. Marlowe is, of course, the avatar of that breed. Chandler endows him with all the requisite traits, from a menacing look to a fast mouth and a taste for beautiful women. But haven’t we had enough of these men by now?
About the author
Raymond Chandler’s first stories appeared in Black Mask magazine during the early years of the Depression. Later, he came to be considered one of the founders of the “hard-boiled” school of detective fiction. Black Mask also published Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and others. In all their work, the dialogue is crisp, the detective is tough and a wise guy, and the bodies pile up. It’s all a little much looking back from the perspective of eighty years.
For additional reading
Previously, I reviewed The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black. I regard the effort as a successful recreation of the mood and attitudes of the time.
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