The Big Sleep, along with books like Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, is considered a cornerstone where hard-boiled fiction is concerned. It is famous for its labyrinthine and deliciously convoluted plot, filled with complex character study. The befuddling and cynically laden narrative, which twists and turns like a serpent on marijuana, however, is just one of the numerous facets that have given this book such iconic status and high literary importance. It is a brilliant take on the dark underbelly of 1940’s L.A.
I had always wanted to read works of the distinctly American hard-boiled genre of novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Unfortunately they aren’t the most accessible authors in many parts of the world. Of course, I had read a lot of James Hadley Chase long back, writer of the quintessential roman de gare – the kind of fast-paced easy reads that travellers love to have with them to kill time; it’s another matter though that I feel he was a better writer than most critics credit him for. But, the real stuff lay elsewhere. And, expectedly, my elation knew no bounds when I chanced upon a book at the British Council Library, comprising of three of the finest works by the one of the pioneers of roman noir and hard-boiled fiction – Raymond Chandler, the novels being The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. Even though they all are amazing, for my current piece I’ve decided to focus solely on The Big Sleep – Chandler’s first work and his greatest masterpiece, a novel that was also chosen by the venerated TIME magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century.
Chandler, for all his greatness, was unique in that he didn’t become a writer because he felt it was his calling, rather it was to earn a quick buck at a time of personal and professional crises. Consequently he started late. But he made up for that big time with the groundbreaking debut novel. The Big Sleep, along with books like Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, is considered a cornerstone where noir fiction is concerned. At that time, though, there was a different name employed to define such works – they were called pulp fictions. The books that fell in this genre – comprising of detective/mystery plots with an edgy and cynical narrative – were usually printed in inexpensive magazines on cheap-quality paper or pulp, and aimed chiefly at buyers interested in low-cost books containing a heady dose of thrills, mystery and sexual overtones – the kind of books that conservatives and puritans love to hate.
The Big Sleep is famous for its labyrinthine and deliciously convoluted plot, filled with red herrings and complex character study. It is impossible to reveal the numerous angles, innuendos and intricacies that Chandler revelled in concocting and which attained imperious and mesmerizing proportions in this book; hence I will not even attempt walking down that path. The novel starts with the simple premise of private investigator Phillip Marlowe (more on him later) being hired by General Sternwood, an incapacitated wealthy man, to investigate into a matter of blackmail. However, soon enough, he gets drawn into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where deceit, pornography, ugly revelations and murder, as the synopsis for the book so aptly puts it, “are just few of the complications that” he has to deal with. Throw in a few archetypal bad guys, a blonde seductress with deadly motives and dark secrets of her own – the perfect femme fatale – in the form of Vivian Sternwood, and her crazy, nymphomaniac sibling Carmen (who is tailor-made for, yet completely oblivious of, extortioners), and you have an unputdownable template for an engaging detective thriller. But that’s just the short of it.
In essence, the befuddling and utterly mind-bending plot, which twists and turns like a serpent on marijuana, is just one of the numerous facets that have given this book such iconic status and high literary importance. It is a brilliant take on the dark underbelly of a city, with its amoral pleasures, corruption, complete lack of ethics and mores, decadence, power politics, and shadowy creatures. The big, bad, sleazy urban jungle of 1940’s Los Angeles, with its sprawling houses whose residents do not believe in the clichéd epithet “home is where the heart is”, neon-lit smoke-filled bars where lonely hearts drown their sorrow and loneliness in glasses of cheap whiskey, drop-dead-beautiful dames loaded with a hell lot of dimes but with hearts as empty as a strewn beer can, trigger-happy gangsters who love making people play around their fingers, and police force that works like a machine with an excess of rusted bolts and conveniently inefficient joints, to name a few, is an unforgettable fifth character of the novel. It truly plays upon the sort of place the world had become during and post-World War II. And in this world resided a character who, in a quick glance might easily qualify as one of the representatives of the sordid times depicted, but in essence is anachronistic in his internal makeup – Phillip Marlowe.
An investigator by profession, a loner by choice, and enigmatic by nature, Phillip Marlowe is one of the most incredible characters of American literature, hell, any work of art. He is a chain-smoking, hard drinking (he loves his bourbon on the rocks), plain-speaking all-American hero. He is an unabashed cynic with a wry sense of humour (tar black at that), his sarcastic and heavily pun-laden snide remarks are never lost on the readers or his fellow characters, and he as tough a son-of-a-gun as you’ll get. But for all his detached sense of existence and hard demeanour, he is a nice person. He has a fierce sense of honour and duty, he always deals fairly and with integrity, he is a sentimentalist at heart, he has the tenacity of a mule, he has an incisive mind, and he is really good at his job. He is a nihilist by appearance and is nearly an anti-hero, but he is the good guy all right. He may not be as ingenious or intellectually brilliant as a Sherlock Holmes, but he is arguably the finest private eye for the simple reason that he is a man of flesh and blood with all his flaws, past baggage and complexities (may Arthur Conan Doyle rest in peace).
Told in first person through the words of Marlowe, it isn’t really difficult to realize that perhaps the P.I. wasn’t very different from his creator – Raymond Chandler. Crackling with wit and off-balancing intelligence, Chandler’s narrative is intriguing, captivating and astounding in equal measures. The sentences and dialogues are so uniquely Chandler that the word “Chandleresque” was invented to describe his arresting style of writing. As a critic so wonderfully summed him, “he’s easy to parody, but impossible to improve on”. Perhaps it wasn’t for no reason that the character Chandler, in the famous sitcom series Friends, was named so – for only a Chandler can do a Chandler (if you know what I mean).
His works in general and this one in particular, is tailor-made for an urban noir thriller even though it was explosive for its times with its staccato of sex and violence. Howard Hawk’s cinematic adaptation of the book, despite being critically acclaimed, hardly does enough justice (in my humble opinion) to the layered storytelling that the book freely boasts of, what with the then draconian Censor board rulings, a two-hour movie run time that can hardly encapsulate the Byzantine plot and elaborate character developments, and Hawk’s desire to play to the gallery by adding elements like the play of words between Bogart and Lauren Bacall while speaking to the police over the phone, to highlight their sexual chemistry and cash in on their then hottest-couple-of-tinsel-town status. On the other hand, in the movie’s defence, with its razor-sharp use of expressionistic lighting and chiaroscuro, it does manage to present the city of LA as Chandler intended, and Bogart truly and certainly was Marlowe (the character of Rick that he essayed in Casablanca wasn’t too different from that of Marlowe either), and he did a fine job in the role of the private eye.
Pages can be written on the novel, especially so because it happens to be one of the two or three personal favourites of mine. But suffice it to say that very rarely does one get hold of a book that manages to conjoin the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between entertainment quotient and literary excellence. Raymond Chandler, with The Big Sleep among other novels, did that and much more. This is indeed one of those rare classics that one can buy not just to decorate his mantelpiece and thus heighten his social standing among his literati buddies, but to have a memorable time reading it, honestly eulogising its greatness in public, and contemplating on its encompassing brilliance in private as well.