Vintage Crime, 1939, 231 pages
Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe is working for the Sternwood family. Old man Sternwood, crippled and wheelchair-bound, is being given the squeeze by a blackmailer and he wants Marlowe to make the problem go away. But with Sternwood's two wild, devil-may-care daughters prowling LA's seedy backstreets, Marlowe's got his work cut out - and that's before he stumbles over the first corpse.
'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...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.'
Not the first Raymond Chandler novel I've read, but the first in the Philip Marlowe series. The Big Sleep seems to set the pattern for the books that follow — Marlowe takes a job from a rich guy who only wants him to do one specific thing but not poke his nose anywhere else, which Marlowe of course does. There are dangerous dames and seedy hustlers and mobsters and corrupt cops, all of which give Marlowe various knocks on the head before he finally arrives at a conclusion that satisfies no one.
Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.
Marlowe's client is General Sternwood, who is being blackmailed by the operator of an undercover porno ring who has photographs of his younger daughter, Carmen. (Ah, for the good old days, when raunchy socialites would pay money to prevent their sexcapades being published, instead of putting them on YouTube.) Marlowe finds the blackmailer and the film easily enough, but the case becomes more complicated with many other characters — the disappearance of Sternwood's older daughter's husband, the murder of the blackmailer followed by the Sternwoods' chauffeur, a mobster and his own missing wife, rumored to have been having an affair with the disappeared husband of Vivian Sternwood, and the incorrigible Carmen Sternwood who seems inclined to throw herself at any dick she can find, including Marlowe.
She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.
This was a complex story with a lot of seedy, gritty characters and locales. While Chandler tries to keep the reader guessing with all the ins and outs of the plot, in which it's easy to lose track of all the different characters' roles, there are ultimately few really big surprises, other than perhaps the ending, which was altered in different ways for the movies (see below).
Marlowe is the sort of tough, unflappable guy they don't make much anymore, and Chandler's prose is tight but descriptive. The book is full of hard-bitten bon mots.
I don't mind your showing me your legs. They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.
While it's obviously very dated, now more a novel of historical fiction than the contemporary detective story it was at the time it was published, the human drama (and the crimes involved) have not changed much.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Humphrey Bogart starred as Philip Marlowe in one of his definitive roles. His costar, Lauren Bacall, was also his lover, and he would soon divorce his current wife to marry her. So there was a lot of chemistry between the two A-listers, and unsurprisingly, the movie changes the ending significantly to give them a happy ever after (or at least, the implied possibility of one).
The Big Sleep (1978)
The 1978 remake was strange. Robert Mitchum, as Marlowe, is now an American private detective in London. General Sternwood (played by James Stewart) is an American who also stayed in England after the war. One of his daughters (Joan Crawford) is, by her accent, British, and the other is American. Why the director decided to move the setting to Britain I don't know, but oddly, this version is actually rather more faithful to the book in some details than the 1946 version. Being made in 1978, it was able to actually show Carmen Sternwood naked, for example.
But while Mitchum was a good actor, he seemed a little too old to be Philip Marlowe. Joan Collins vamped well, but she didn't manage to come off as cynical and dangerous as Lauren Bacall. This reminded me of the weird 1973 Robert Altman remake of The Long Goodbye. It's definitely inferior to the original.
Also by Raymond Chandler: My review of The Long Goodbye.
My complete list of book reviews.