The Big Sleep

Posted: December 15, 2021 in Book reviews

By Raymond Chandler

When PI Philip Marlowe is called to the house of the wealthy and elderly General Sternwood he can little imagine where events will lead. Initially Sternwood hires him to deal with a bookseller named Arthur Geiger, who is trying to blackmail his wild youngest daughter, Carmen.

Marlowe agrees to take the case but on his way out is accosted by Sternwood’s eldest daughter, the only slightly less wild Vivian. Vivian believes her father has actually hired Marlowe to track down her missing husband, Rusty Regan. Marlowe doesn’t confirm or deny her suspicions.

Quickly Marlowe finds himself embroiled in mayhem as he becomes entangled in the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, in pornography and murder, but just what is going on?

I’ve always loved the film of The Big Sleep, and it’s not a lie to say that for much of my reading of the book I had Humphrey Bogart’s voiceechoing through my mind. Much as I enjoy the film I’m never entirely sure what exactly transpires in it, and having read the book, and done some research on the Wikipedia page, I can see that the convoluted plot of the film was lifted pretty much from the book, and I also discovered that I’m not the only one to find it a bit of a headscratcher, though to be fair now I’ve read the book I think the film should seem a little more coherant.

In some respects the confusing complexity of the plot makes sense. My reading of Chandler has made it obvious that he was a writer who rated characterisation and atmosphere over plot, and given The Big Sleep, like most of his novels, was a hybrid of several of his short stories (at least four apparently) then that confusion makes even more sense. There’s one clear loose thread still left dangling at the end.

But I don’t necessarily read Chandler for the plot. I read it for the characters and the prose, for the ambiance of the world He’s writing about.

As usual Chandler is great at this, and populates the book with a slew of memorable characters. Carmen and Vivian for starters (though it’s hard to separate Vivian from the wonderful portrayal of the character by Lauren Bacall) then there’s General Sternwood, an infirm old man who spends his days in the hothouse so he can feel warm, and who enjoys his old vices vicariously through others. The servants, particularly the butler, are also great. Then there’s Harry Jones and the killer Canino who don’t show up for long but who make a strong impression. Pretty much everyone Marlowe meets makes an impression.

It’s also interesting to see how racy the book is, it had to be toned down for the film. There’s sex and nudity and homosexuality, most of which never made it into the film. Hence when Bogie finds Carmen in the film she’s oddly fully clothed, despite having been just photographed for pornographic material, whereas in the book she’s naked.

Anyway, a wonderful book, just don’t expect it to make a whole lot of sense!

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