Last week, we shared one of my early podcast audio reviews, focusing on Dashiell Hammett's book The Thin Man. Hammett is generally regarded as one of the leading proponents of the "hard-boiled" school of American mystery fiction. This week, I want to share another of my early reviews dealing with another of the leaders of that school - Raymond Chandler, whose books about private eye Philip Marlowe helped to promote the hard-boiled mystery into its prominent position in crime fiction. Here, again somewhat edited, is what I had to say about Chandler's first book, The Big Sleep, originally published in 1939:
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Start with murder. Mix in some pornography and a double helping of blackmail. Add a mysterious disappearance. Season with an elderly millionaire and his psychotic daughters. Now stir in some gangsters and some illegal gambling. Carefully add several additional murders. Finally, mix in one hard-boiled, but sensitive, American private eye. You have the recipe for The Big Sleep, the first Philip Marlowe novel written by Raymond Chandler.
You can’t really have a conversation about the American mystery novel without talking about Raymond Chandler. Just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Chandler’s creation of Philip Marlowe really defined the American, hard-boiled school of mystery writing. Unlike many of the great puzzle mysteries we associate with the Golden Age, the hard-boiled novels were filled with action – the reader, like the detective, barely having time to catch a breath before another murder or some other event propelled the plot still further along.
Chandler’s first novel was The Big Sleep. The plot is enormously convoluted. I’ve lost count of the total number of murders, but I’m not alone – even Chandler himself, famously, observed once that he didn’t have any idea who really killed one of the victims or if it might have been suicide. It’s that kind of plot.
Basically, private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by an elderly and very rich man, a retired general, to try to deal with an extortionist, who apparently has some IOU’s signed by the general’s younger daughter. We quickly discover that the daughter is also a nymphomaniac and a drug addict, and a blackmailer manages to take a nude photo of her. The blackmailer is murdered, and we’re off and running. Characters come and go with dizzying speed. We meet the general’s other daughter, whose husband apparently ran off with another man’s wife about a month earlier. She’s also a gambler, deeply involved with a gangster and a number of other unsavory types.
I’m not going to try to lay out much more of the plot, because, as I say, it is remarkably complicated – and, to be honest, it’s only part of what makes The Big Sleep a classic. Chandler was a fine writer, and both his descriptions and his dialogue are snappy and memorable.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
Early on, for instance, when Marlowe meets the general’s older daughter, her maid walks into the room. Here’s how she is described:
A maid came into the room by a side door. She was a middle-aged woman with a long yellow gentle face, a long nose, no chin, large wet eyes. She looked like a nice old horse that had been turned out to pasture after long service.
That’s a remarkably economical way to introduce us to a minor character.
Or listen to this description of a woman clerk in a bookstore, where Marlowe has discovered something strange is going on and confronts the clerk:
I thought she was going to fall on her nose. Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust. She put it together again slowly, as if lifting a great weight, by sheer will power. The smile came back, with a couple of corners badly bent.
And the dialogue is memorable. One of my favorite lines comes when Marlowe is in trouble – tied up in a remote house, guarded by a woman he’s been searching for, waiting for a hit man named Canino to come back…he tells her:
"You know what Canino will do – beat my teeth out and then kick me in the stomach for mumbling."
Or, on another occasion, having just kissed the general’s older daughter, he tells her,
“Kissing is nice, but your father didn’t hire me to sleep with you.”
It all adds up to the quintessential American hard-boiled detective story. Chandler wrote a number of other books about Philip Marlowe, but The Big Sleep remains my favorite.
Fans of old movies may remember the movie version of The Big Sleep, made by the American director Howard Hawks and released in 1946. It starred Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as the general’s older daughter. The screenplay authors included William Faulkner, but a great deal of the dialogue comes straight from the book. The plot had some changes – we’re talking about 1946, and the movie censors would never have approved of some of the nudity, the discussion of pornography and the rough language which are essential to the book. In fact, the ending of the movie was changed, wrapping things up far more neatly than the book does – although that one murder I mentioned earlier is as unsolved in the movie as it was in the book.
I have said before that I’m not a great fan of hard-boiled detective stories, but Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the exceptions to that rule – maybe because, in a lot of ways, they were the originators of the form. If you haven’t read The Big Sleep, I recommend it to you.
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You can listen to the original audio review by clicking here.
Next week, Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers