The Big Sleep was chosen by one of the two book groups I attend for a classic crime theme, I probably would never have read it had it not been. Although I loved the original 1946 film (huge Humphrey Bogart fan here) I don’t think I had ever really fancied reading Raymond Chandler. So I downloaded the book to my kindle – read it (more of that in a minute) and then didn’t actually manage to get to the group.
Despite being unsure about reading Raymond Chandler, my fond memory for the film made me expect to like the book, and things certainly started well. I knew enough about Raymond Chandler not to be surprised by his hardboiled writing style – it is one that has been parodied enough for it to be instantly familiar. The opening of the novel reminded me so much of that lovely old black and white film and that probably helped me settle into the book quickly.
The novel opens with Private eye, Philip Marlow having been called to the home of the wealthy General Sternwood. Admitted to the house by a butler, Marlow meets the General’s youngest daughter Carmen, and is treated to a display of her rather wild highly sexualised behaviour. The General, aging and unwell, sees Marlow in his conservatory, among his orchids.
“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket. The butler did his best to get me through without being smacked in the face by the sodden leaves, and after a while we came to a clearing in the middle of the jungle, under the domed roof. Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair, and in the wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall.”
The General asks Marlow to look into the blackmailing of his youngest daughter by a bookseller named Arthur Geiger. During their conversation Marlow learns of Sternwood’s son in law Rusty Reagan, a man his eldest daughter married somewhat rashly and who has now disappeared. As Marlow leaves he runs into Vivian Reagan, who assumes that Marlow has been asked to look into the disappearance of her estranged husband, and is frustrated by Marlow’s refusal to confirm it.
Marlow is soon investigating the world of Arthur Geiger, going to his bookstore; it isn’t long before he discovers that the store is really a pornography lending library. Later parked up outside Geiger’s house Marlow sees Carmen Sternwood enter the house. From inside the house, Marlow hears a scream and a gunshot, cars speed away from the scene and Marlow goes to investigate. Inside he finds Carmen, obviously under the influence of something, sitting naked on a chair in front of an empty camera, the body of Arthur Geiger lying on the floor. Marlow takes Carmen home, entrusting her to the discretion of the butler, Marlow returns to Geiger’s house only to find that the body is gone.
Up to this point I was enjoying the book; although the style would probably not be one I’d choose ordinarily it hadn’t, at this point – in any way put me off. I thought in fact the novel started really strongly, I absolutely wanted to find out what was going on with Carmen, Geiger, Vivian Reagan, and her absent husband. Marlow speaks to the police, and the next day the Sternwood chauffeur is sound dead in his car – driven off the pier. From this point of the novel though, I found my attention wandering – which is not to be recommended with a complex plotted crime novel. I hate to say it, but I became bored, and I think it probably did have something to do with the style. The plot of the novel (of which I really don’t want to say too much more for obvious reasons) is richly complex – and we meet several characters, on both sides of the law, but there wasn’t the depth of character development that I really like. Philip Marlow and his irreverent view of the world, his cynical wit and quiet decency is definitely the best thing about The Big Sleep – and it made me want to watch the film all over again.
“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.”
Chandler wraps things up very neatly at the end, everything is explained satisfactorily and we leave Philip Marlow in a bar, ruminating about life and death. I am rather disappointed with my overall reaction to The Big Sleep – I think it will probably ensure that I never read Raymond Chandler again – though it might make me seek out those old black and White Bogey movies that I once loved so much.