The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)

  • By Raymond Chandler
  • First published: US: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939; UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1939

Very over-rated.  The plot lacks focus—some of the scenes (notably the gambling scene in Ch. 22, and the scene in the next chapter between Marlowe and Vivian) are excellent, but the story seems to be a loosely-woven series of set-pieces rather than a coherent narrative, probably because Chandler reworked several of his short stories.  There are too many loose ends, most famously who killed the chauffeur.  The plot is really ‘wasps in a jar’.

Is Chandler’s style any good?  (Heresy!)  Over-descriptive and staccato short sentences, as in late Bailey or Hemingway, make for uphill reading (e.g., description of Vivian on p. 22), slow everything down, and get in the way of the story.


BLURBS

1939 Alfred A. Knopf

Not since Dashiell Hammett first appeared has there been a murder mystery story with the power, pace, and terrifying atmosphere of this one. And like Hammett’s this is more than a “murder mystery”: it is a novel of crime and character, written with uncommon skill and in a tight, tense style which is irresistible.

The centre of the plot is a family: an old, paralysed ex-soldier, who made a fortune in oil; his two beautiful daughters – one a gambler, the other a degenerate; and a strangely missing son-in-law. Around such a family, with all its money, its vices, and its hidden scandals, it was inevitable that there should cluster blackmailers, gangsters, and purveyors of forbidden thrills. There are violence and shameful things in the family’s history, but the detective – shrewd, strong, incorruptible, the healthy force amid the shadows and the whispers – who started out to break a blackmail case and ended up to his neck in a series of mysterious murders, clears the atmosphere and leaves the reader content that justice, though of an unexpected sort, will after all be done.

1939 Hamish Hamilton

Not since Dashiell Hammett first appeared has there been a murder mystery story with the power, pace, and terrifying atmosphere of this one. And like Hammett’s this is more than a “murder mystery”: it is a novel of crime and character, written with uncommon skill and in a tight, tense style which is irresistible.

The centre of the plot is a family: an old, paralysed ex-soldier, who made a fortune in oil; his two beautiful daughters – one a gambler, the other a degenerate; and a strangely missing son-in-law. Around such a family, with all its money, its vices, and its hidden scandals, it was inevitable that there should cluster blackmailers, gangsters, and purveyors of forbidden thrills. There are violence and shameful things in the family’s history, but the detective – shrewd, strong, incorruptible, the healthy force amid the shadows and the whispers – who started out to break a blackmail case and ended up to his neck in a series of mysterious murders, clears the atmosphere and leaves the reader content that justice, though of an unexpected sort, will after all be done.

We recommend this novel with enthusiasm. In our opinion it will repeat the success of The Postman Always Rings Twice.


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Cleveland Plain Dealer: I hope it may be the first of a long series, for this fellow knows how to write. There is action in his work, and there is passion. And atmosphere and character. And what more do you want for your two bucks?

New York World-Telegram: In the hard-boiled tradition and it is a honey of its kind – raw, exiting, truthfully spoken and felt.

New Republic: Something a good deal more than a who-done-it. If you have any feeling for subtle workmanship, don’t give it the go-by.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: So definitely on the superior side that even readers who ordinarily shun mysteries will find this novel well worth inspecting. It has the shock appeal and lean manner of books by Dashiell Hammett and James Cain, and the story races through to a surprise climax that hits some sort of high in sheer ingenuity.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 11 March 1939): If Miss [Mabel] Seeley is of the school of Eberhart, Raymond Chandler, another American, has affinities with Peter Cheyney.  The narrator, Philip Marlowe, is a private detective, and his adventures are told in the obscurest American slang.  His self-appointed job, which he carries through successfully, is to conceal from an aged general the misadventures of his two degenerate daughters.  There are many thrilling episodes among professional criminals and the story goes with a swing.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The author’s first, which established him as a master of all the qualities requisite for the new tough genre made respectable by Hammett and exemplified in the short form in the magazine Black  Mask: atmosphere, suspense, unexpected violence, sardonic dialogue, sharp-focus description, and hatred of class and of power.  This story has them all and stresses the last.