Review: The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler is one of those authors who you often hear transcends his genre; he writes mysteries, but is (today)well regarded by most readers.  I’m a man who likes genre fiction, so the genre thing isn’t really off-putting to me.  And yet, it’s taken me this long to read any Chandler.

That’s a mistake I regret.  It’s sad to have lived this long without meeting Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the flesh before.

The Big Sleep is an impressive display of writing on many levels.  First is Chandler’s unique prose style.  Even if you’ve never read Chandler, you’ve heard echos of this; everyone writing a tough-guy spoof or a noir mystery has taken a swing at it.  Reading the original tells you why this voice has become so universally recognized.  Descriptions are minimal and impressionistic, and filled out with colloquialisms and apt but unexpected similies.  Anyone who’s ever read a mystery that’s vaguely noir recognizes the formula, but watching Chandler execute it is the difference between seeing U2 in a club and hearing a tribute band on the radio.

His prose is so minimalist and powerful that even with the concentrated text, all the images necessary to follow the story are tattooed into your mind’s eye.  With each word condensed to its most potent form, it would be easy to lose important detail, but I never needed to fill in any blanks here.

The use of the 1930’s slang could be distracting and confusing, but  the clear storytelling somehow makes the specific meaning of any slang unimportant.  Again, it shows how well constructed the prose is – the bits of verisimilitude don’t interfere with the meaning.  This frees the reader to enjoy the slang of a bygone era without reservation, and it is a source of great joy.  I hope that people really did talk that way in the 30’s.

There’s plenty of what modern readers would call period detail that’s just part of the story here.  I particularly enjoyed how Marlowe often comments about tough guys arranging themselves the same way as gangsters in the movies do.

Finally, people tend to think of noir dramas as taking place in generic dark cities – again the influence of the movies.  The Big Sleep is set in Los Angeles – west LA and Hollywood, really – and there’s never any doubt about it.  That’s where I live these days, and following Marlowe around my environs time-shifted 80 years gives the story a ghostly undercurrent.  I recognize settings despite the maze of time between me and Marlowe.  Even if you’ve never been to LA, that feeling of place comes through clearly.

There’s a mystery in here, too, if that’s your thing, and from what I can tell, a good one.  I won’t remember the details of the clues or when Marlowe figured what out for very long, but I’ll always remember The Big Sleep.

Strongly Recommended.

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