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Review of The Big Sleep

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I’ve been going on and on about sword noir, and I’ve been referring a lot to film noir movies and sword & sorcery books. One thing I decided after re-watching the Maltese Falcon recently is that I wanted to read some of the hardboiled writers that inspired noir movies.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I haven’t been reading that much fiction recently. When I have been reading fiction, I haven’t been finishing it. When I have been finishing it, it has taken an exceptionally long time.

I don’t suffer this with non-fiction. I think that is because I don’t write non-fiction. It has become harder and harder to read fiction without looking behind the curtain—as it were. I am reading it too critically. I’m not enjoying it. When the writer has done his job, when I’m swept away by the story, intrigued by the plot, or entertained by the characters, I lose myself and I read fiction for pleasure.

I fired through the Big Sleep in three days. Granted, it’s not that long of a book. The volume I have has it included with Farewell, My Lovely and the Long Goodbye. You have to understand, though, I read it on the bus to work, on my break, on my lunch, and on the bus home from work. I read it on the couch after everyone else had gone to bed.

It’s a really good book.

The story is legendarily convoluted. There is actually a murder that Raymond Chandler forgot about in the middle of it, but the writing is so good, I never lost the plot. I never needed a list of players or connections to remember where things were going or where we had been. Sometimes, there’s a nice little summary as Philip Marlowe or some other character sizes things up or explains something.

The prose is tight while being luxurious. There’s no flab here, but there is a huge amount of beauty. Chandler really had a way with words. I’m not surprised that he started out writing poetry.

The dialogue is kind of difficult, in that it is so close to our modern colloquial, yet the slang and the structure can be jarring. That was my biggest hurdle. We’ve heard this before in old movies, and might have laughed at it there. The dialogue written Chandler (and the other hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammet) was so good at the time, it’s been copied endlessly by all levels of hackery, so it has come down to us as a kind of joke. But just as one only needs to get a grip on Shakespeare’s Elizabethan once and one can move through his work, once I overcame the hurdle of the dialogue, nothing slowed me down.

Do I need to tell you the story? General Sternwood—a very aged, very decrepit gentleman—has hired Philip Marlowe to deal with a possible blackmailer. That’s all I’m going to say. Everything leads from that, but it leads to some wildly unexpected places.

I really liked the Marlowe character. He’s competent without being invulnerable. He’s smart, but still gets fooled sometimes. One of the characters calls him a soldier, and that’s kind of what he’s like. He’s got a dedication to the mission. His power is in his will—he pretty much imposes himself a couple of times in situations in which a less confident character might do something stupid . . . like try to fight.

It’s interesting, I’ve started reading the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet and both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe state an aversion to carrying a gun. They’ll both use them when the situation warrants it, but more often than not, the gun they are using is one they’ve taken off another character.

All of the characters in the Big Sleep, even those that spend little time with the reader, are fully realized. We see the characters through Marlowe’s eyes, and his judgements of them effects our own. It was especially fun reading this, remembering that this is Marlowe telling me what happened, and trying to guess when Marlowe is being an untrustworthy narrator. Did a character really do that, or is that Marlowe’s memory playing tricks on him? Did it really happen like that, or is Marlowe covering something up, or trying to make himself look better?

I will say I am not enjoying the Maltese Falcon as much as I did the Big Sleep. Is this because I saw the movie, and it hewed very, very close to the novel? Possibly. I’ve got four other Hammet novels to read (and two other Chandlers), so I’ll see. Next on the list is Red Harvest, from which Yojimbo allegedly derives.

Hammet also uses a limited third-person point of view, kind of like one is watching a movie or TV program. The reader doesn’t get into the head of any of the characters. The Big Sleep is first person, and it’s first person done very, very right. I like getting in character’s heads. Much of my own writing is about what is happening in a character’s head. I have often considered trying more limited third person, but I don’t think my strength is in description, so I’m not sure how well I could produce it.

To summarize, the Big Sleep is an excellent introduction into hardboiled detective fiction, the kind that made it to the screen as film noir. Raymond Chandler’s writing is tight yet flowery, and his characters are very distinctive.

I give this one 4.5 shots of whiskey out of 5.