The core of this book is about power, but Chandler’s prose is what captivated me. I’ve never seen anyone match his hard-boiled style or come across another author who could so masterfully use a simile. His dialogue has an almost sour wit to it that is downright fun to read. I could feel the grin creep across my face when I read lines like “I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Or the chills I felt at lines like “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” that punctuate his bleak and gritty prose. Twisting plots and surprises this book has in spades, but when I tore through it in a single day back in high school it was as much to see what off the wall descriptions he would come up with next.
The book shows its age here and there, with odd descriptions that might sound strange to modern readers and similes and dialogue that overreach at times. But the book is a masterful evolution of the detective novel, bringing the grand traditions of Sherlock Holmes to the grim realities of 1930s America, and paving the way for the film noir of 40s and 50s cinema. The ending of the book is almost unsatisfactory, but in a good way. Justice isn’t exactly meted out, Marlowe isn’t much better off and is maybe a little worse for the wear and there aren’t many triumphs for the women or minorities in the book. The Big Sleep is, put simply, unique; and I recommend it to any mystery fans or someone curious about where the cliché of the private eye sipping whiskey in his office one rainy evening when the femme fatale comes through his door and drops a heap of trouble in his lap. Hell, if you just want to crack a smile at Philip Marlowe cracking wise, this book is for you.
At its core Raymond Chandler’s classic The Big Sleep is about power. Private eye Philip Marlowe is summoned to a rich elderly man’s house. As he says in the opening lines: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.” General Sternwood, the “four million dollars”, is wheelchair-bound and sickly, but can still summon Marlowe and even make him dress up for the occasion. Yet when they come face to face Marlowe is physically powerful, not just able to walk but to drink and smoke, vices the General can only appreciate vicariously in his old age. It’s youth vs money, and though youth has its advantages ultimately Marlowe leaves in the General’s service, lending his youth to money. Money wins out a lot in this book, as it did in a 1930s America wracked by the Great Depression.
But Marlowe is not bottom of the food chain. In an age when women could not go out at night without an escort, let alone vote, being a woman caught up in the seedy underworld of Los Angeles blackmailers, pornographers and racketeers was beyond dangerous. In any interaction between the sexes in The Big Sleep, the reader should keep in mind Oscar Wilde’s famous words: Everything in the world is about sex except sex; sex is about power. When Vivian, the General’s eldest daughter, tries to get information out of Marlowe, the scene immediately adopts sexual overtones: “I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at.” Vivian Regan is a woman in a world where women wield no real power, so she turns to the only weapon left in her arsenal: sex appeal. But Marlowe recognizes and rejects her tactics: “I don't mind your showing me your legs. They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance… but don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.” This happens multiple times throughout the book: Marlowe is aware of the power dynamic and stops it. The women who are used to exercising this power over men find him vexing at the least and worth killing at the worst. Minorities, gays and women don’t tend to fare well in general in Chandler’s work. This isn’t sexism, however; he’s accurately portraying a world that has become disillusioned with the American Dream, and nowhere is this more evident than with the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Raymond Chandler
Reviewed by Myles Lawrence-Briggs
Vhcle Books, Issue 15
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Myles Lawrence-Briggs is a 20-something graduate from CU Boulder in English literature, Myles has moved back to the wine country to start a wine label with two childhood friends. He manages the estate vineyard and in his spare time reads far too much and writes far too little.  
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