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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the first film version of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Book Review:
The Big Sleep (1939)
 by Raymond Chandler

  If you have ever confused Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Carver, or thought that Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade were the same person because Humphrey Bogart played them both in the movie version, join me in the club.  First of all, Raymond Carver is a short story writer and poet, and did not write crime novels, although he did, like Raymond Chandler, write many stories which took place in the area of Los Angeles.

  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the one-two punch of American crime fiction.   Hammett's Sam Spade worked out of San Francisco, and his other detective fiction had a decidedly western feel, whereas Chandler's Sam Spade was an LA cat, through and through.  Through the performance of Bogart as Spade in the Maltese Falcon and Marlowe in The Big Sleep,  the two characters have been joined as a kind of archetypical hard boiled American private detective.  Both characters have also been affixed to the idea of film noir, though strictly speaking that refers only to the movie portrayals, not the books, which belong to the "detective fiction" genre- an inspiration for but different from film noir.

  One important difference between Chandler and Hammett is that Hammett actually worked for the Pinkerton agency as a private investigator, whereas Chandler was employed as an executive at an insurance company before a mid-career lay off forced him into writing for a living.  I think you can probably make a good argument that this difference in personal experience explains stylistic differences between the two authors.  Hammett was more of the break-through pioneer, Chandler a more refined prose stylist with a better grasp of literary symbolism.

  The Big Sleep is embedded with memorable visual atmospherics- the hot house in the initial meeting between Marlowe and General Sternwood, and the various Los Angeles locations that surface throughout The Big Sleep from beginning to end.   You can hardly say you've read if you haven't read The Big Sleep- simply watching the film (which is also a must) is not enough.  I would say that The Big Sleep essentially invents the idea of Los Angeles as a noir location- the sub-genre of sunshine noir, even though as book, it is not a "film" noir. 

   The decadence and corruption of pre-war Los Angeles sticks with you, and it is possible to appreciate The Big Sleep without following the plot at all.  By the time Marlowe  fingers the General's younger daughter as the murderer, the narrative force is spent, and I closed the book with a sigh, sad to be at the end of such a glorious journey through a historic Los Angeles.

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