Raymond Chandler’s debut novel. Los Angeles private investigator Philip Marlowe takes on an aging tycoon’s blackmail case that spirals into a labyrinthine series of murders.
I came to The Big Sleep via the movie. During my freshman year in college, a junior-level class was screening film noirs. The showings were open to all students. Despite the grainy, 16-millimeter projection, the crackling dialog, relentless plot, and iconic performances hooked me.
Two years later, I went on a two-week trip to the United Kingdom.
I spent much of that trip exploring bookstores. This was the late nineties. Bookstores were still a thing and hard-boiled detective fiction was hot. End-caps, table displays, and dedicated shelves promoted it.
Seeing Chandler’s work featured in shop after shop sold me. And, I confess, the idea of reading classic crime fiction in a London pub felt cool.
As in the film, one murder remains unresolved. During the movie’s production, star Humphrey Bogart and director Howard Hawks argued over who committed a certain murder. They wired Chandler, asking for clarification. Chandler replied he didn’t know either.1
Not that it matters. The film lifts its best lines straight from the book. Chandler was a master of cynical hyperbole and whip-smart metaphors. Consider this bit of atmosphere describing a dingy office building:
An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse.
Damn, that’s good.
But, listening to the book again2, I struggled with Marlowe’s overt homophobia. For example:
“Don’t kid me, son. The fag gave you one. You’ve got a nice clean manly little room in there. He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors. He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men. Think I can’t figure people like him and you out?”
Were it just the dialog, I could dismiss it as Marlowe baiting the kid. But it extends to Marlowe’s inner monologue.
I still held his automatic more or less pointed at him, but he swung on me just the same. It caught me flush on the chin. I backstepped fast enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.
That proves harder to stomach.
I’d like to think Chandler added these bits to distance us from Marlowe. To hone Marlowe’s edge by incorporating some character flaws. To hint that, for all his nobility, Marlowe has a dark side.
But I wouldn’t bet on it. More likely, Chandler used them as a shortcut to paint some characters as deviants and Marlowe as a macho tough guy.
Chandler could do better. Consider this exchange when a would-be tough guy calls on Marlowe with information to sell:
His eyes bulged and his lower lip almost fell in his lap. “Christ, how’d you know that?” he said.
“I’m psychic. Shake your business up and pour it. I haven’t got all day.”
Shake your business up and pour it. That’s how you write a tough guy.
So what to make of the book? I’d long considered it one of the best I’d ever read, but this latest read made me reconsider.
It’s a good book, with moments of indisputable greatness, but ignoring the homophobia, or excusing it as a product of its time, would be disingenuous.
Chandler could do better.