The first of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels, The Big Sleep was included such end of century lists as Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century and Time’s list of 100 Best Novels. (A sad realization: I won’t be around for the best of 21st century lists.) Chandler is credited with being a founder of the hard-boiled detective story, along with Dashiel Hammet, James M Cain and others. In 1932, he published his first detective short story; in 1939 The Big Sleep was published, his first of seven full length novels. In 1946, it was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall that is famous for its non-sensical plot.
I did not like The Big Sleep (★★), no big surprise when you know it took me two weeks to read it, a 230 page novel. The characters were shallow and the mystery was overly complex and impossible to solve without Marlowe’s soliloquy at the end. Sometimes, the dialogue made no sense and when Marlowe shows interest in a woman (one of four possible femme fatale) it is over as soon as it happens, though he makes a puzzling reference to her in the last line of the novel, implying there was a connection between the two that did not make it on the page. Chandler’s strength was description and mood, though how much of the mood did he set and how much of it did I project on what I read from the 30s and 40s classic detective movies I have seen? It’s hard to say.
While trying to find a synopsis of the novel, I came across this bit of information. It explains a lot.
The Big Sleep, like most of Chandler’s novels, was written by what he called cannibalizing previously written short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published in the pulp magazine Black Mask and rework them so that they fit together in one coherent story. In the case of The Big Sleep, the two main stories that formed the core of the novel were “Killer in the Rain” (published in 1935) and “The Curtain” (published in 1936). Although the stories were completely independent and shared no common characters, they had some similarities that made it logical to combine them. In both stories there is a powerful father who is distressed by his wild daughter. Chandler merged the two fathers into a new character and did the same for the two daughters, resulting in General Sternwood and his wild daughter Carmen. Chandler also borrowed small parts of two other stories: “Finger Man” and “Mandarin’s Jade”.
As might be expected, all this cannibalizing—especially in a time when cutting and pasting was done by literally cutting and pasting paper—sometimes resulted in a plot that had a few loose ends; in the case of “The Big Sleep”, there is the famous question of who killed the chauffeur. When Howard Hawks made his film of the novel, the writing team were perplexed as to the answer. Hawks contacted Chandler to inquire and Chandler replied he had no idea. This exemplifies a difference between Chander’s style of crime fiction and previous authors. For Chandler the plot was almost secondary; what really mattered was the atmosphere and the characters. An ending that answered all the questions and neatly wrapped every plot thread up was less important to Chandler than having interesting characters who behave in believable ways. When Chandler merged his stories into a novel, he spent more effort on expanding descriptions of people, places, and Marlowe’s thought processes than getting every detail of the plot perfectly consistent.
Despite not being impressed with The Big Sleep, I will most likely read The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely, if only to mark two more novels from my 1001 Books List.