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Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 15, 2017
Category: Mystery

Raymond Chandler cut his typing paper in half. He’d type until he made a bad word choice or botched a bit of dialogue, then he’d rip the sheet out of his typewriter and start again. Eventually he’d have a half page of fiction he could stand. Then he’d move forward — very, very slowly — to the next half-page of his novel.

Only slaves to perfection work like this. But if you’re brilliant — and in the late 1930s, Chandler was inventing a new kind of hero and a new way of writing detective fiction — you get a masterpiece. “The Big Sleep” was Chandler’s first novel, but any lover of crime fiction will tell you: It’s a masterpiece and then some. [To buy the paperback of “The Big Sleep” from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here. To buy the DVD of the film or rent the video stream, click here.]

If you stay up late or are an aficionado of old movies, you have seen the Howard Hawks film. It stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It co-stars Los Angeles in the rain, shady supper clubs, a pornography business masquerading as a rare bookstore, and a host of minor characters — almost all of them memorable, even when you can’t keep them straight. And if you can’t keep the characters straight, don’t worry — Chandler couldn’t either. There are seven murders in this twisted tale, and even he was unsure  who committed one of them.

One of the screenwriters was William Faulkner. He most notably contributed a memorably smutty exchange between Bogart and Bacall, but his work was not onerous — most of the snappy dialogue in the film comes directly from the book. But what was added in the movie is less interesting than what was, by necessity, lost in the transition from book to film: Chandler’s prose. The unusual trailer for the film references both:

The story starts simply enough.  General Sternwood, the aged and ill father of two wild daughters, has summoned a private investigator. Philip Marlowe — a former cop, at once brutally cynical and totally incorruptible — narrates the book. And in the first paragraph, we learn most of what we need to know about him: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be."

General Sternwood has a small piece of business for Marlowe: paying off a rare-book dealer who seems to have accumulated several thousand dollars of his younger daughter’s gambling debts. But one thing leads to another, and soon we are in a world of drugs and smut and a great deal of police indifference. And it is here that Chandler simply leaves lesser writers behind — he strips away all our pretty illusions about the ways tough guys behave. In essence, he turns every character into an extreme, movie version of himself/herself. Consider:

“How come you had a key?”
“Is that any of your business, soldier?”
“I could make it my business.”
He smiled tightly and pushed his hat back on his gray hair.
“And I could make your business my business.”
“You wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.”

And then there are the lines that make you reach for a pencil. My favorites:

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

She brought the glass over. Bubbles rose in it like false hopes.

Don’t be fooled by the tough-guy prose. There’s romance aplenty. And a scene that is in my pantheon of Most Erotic Ever:

“The Big Sleep”— the title is a euphemism for death — races through five days and nights. You can read it in one. You will likely come away with a great admiration for Raymond Chandler and an interest in reading more of his novels. But be warned: You may also set the book down with a revised — that is, lesser — appreciation of a batch of mystery writers who once thrilled you. And dead idols can be pretty heavy too.