It’s been a while since I read the classic hard-boiled detectives, and felt like revisiting the pillars of the genre. The Big Sleep is one of those genre-defining works, but a lot has changed in the 80+ years since its publication. Following is a review of the novel, with a summary that is waxing philosophical about how the same genre shifts across a century.
What to Expect
The first novel of Phillip Marlowe, and Chandler’s first full-length novel (he previously published short stories in pulp magazines). Marlowe is a private investigator with ties to the police and legal system, and a strict personal code of conduct. He’s hired by an ageing general on his deathbed, blackmailed about his wayward daughter. The story takes Marlowe a full circle through Los Angeles underbelly of protection rackets and violent crime and back close to home.
What I liked
I loved the atmosphere of the novel, those grey weeping skies and rough character brushing against each other. Marlowe himself isn’t exactly lovable, but he’s an interesting character. He has his ethics, which may not be what society always approves of but nonetheless serve him, his employers, and arguably society at large.
What to be aware of
This novel was written and published in 1939, and is a product of the times. You’ll need to read it with an appreciation of the times: the whole culture is rife with chauvinism, misogyny, homophobia, and racism. Though women play an important part of the story, most of their appearances are as cringe-worthy as those in a 1960’s Bond movie.
The novel also has some inconsistencies of plot, a natural consequence of how Chandler combined elements from two previous short stories. This has left some unexplored and hanging side questions. To me, this highlights the gritty and alluring nature of the hard-boiled genre, where life is messy and things aren’t always all tied up with a neat bow at the end — but your taste may vary.
Felix found Marlowe a kindred spirit, as he’s been working to basically the same personal code of ethics. Once hired, he will pursue matters to the end — often in ways that the client doesn’t need to know about. Though settings differ, he enjoyed the atmosphere of the Californian winter and social underbelly, although even he found the women in the story perplexing. While Felix’s culture (based on Ancient Rome) had legal restrictions of gender and social classes, he found Chandler’s women lacking agency to an alarming degree.
It’s impossible to give a star-rating (an inherently subjective scale) to a seminal work that impacted culture to this extent. So instead I’ll provide points to consider in answering your personal ‘should I read this‘.
The book provides illumination both on the main aspects of the hard-boiled genre, and of cultural changes since that time (probably true since Jane Austen wrote her seminal ‘the importance of getting a good husband’ novels). Things have changed since the 1930’s — people find chain smoking like there’s no tomorrow acceptable while simultaneously being squeamish around porn, quite the reverse of what modern readers would like to see treated in their entertainment. Reading this would provide you with great insights into the period and on writing atmosphere for a loner detective, which makes great research into both literary of period history.
Would I read more Chandler novels? Probably, but not soon. Would I read other period detectives, like Dashiell Hammett? Again, probably, but not soon. I have my confirmation about the solid base for the character of Felix and the atmosphere. I am satisfied that I am both true to the mystery aspects (with my own my blend of hard-boiled, detective, and legal dramas), and have managed to adapt the stories around them to modern sensibilities to my satisfaction (and don’t get me started about the criticism flung at men writing women based solely on the author being a male).
While I can suspend my personal views to examine period works in the context of the culture they were written in, it can still be a bit confronting. So the occasional foray for research purposes is educational, and running a comparative analysis in my head is illuminating, the overall experience is still more cerebral (not to say occasionally confronting) and is best taken at moderation.
If you’re after finished products that still convey the style but with modern sensibilities, there are plenty of good recent authors that navigate it well. For an added touch of fantasy (which I prefer anyway), try Douglas Lumsden‘s novels, Richard Knaak’s Black City, or my own Felix.
Enjoying the reviews, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow? Glad you asked! He’s the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome.