The most common feature of life at Brown is all of the wonderful free time students have. Now, what to do with all of it? Ha, ha. Ha. Okay, we’re obviously all up to our necks in work, but if any of you are like me, you’re apt to spend some of your precious sober leisure time with a good book. Recommended Reading is a biweekly column in which I’ll tell you what I think is worth reading. If you don’t have the time to sit down and read Moby Dick (you should try to find time, though; it’s great), don’t worry. The content will include poetry, comics, short stories, and perhaps the occasional essay. If you think I’m a hack and all of my opinions are shallow and boring, feel free to hate-read.
Raymond Chandler’s name is synonymous with the pulp detective genre. Since my experiences with Chandler prior to reading The Big Sleep began and ended with the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (a very loose comedic retelling of the novel), I really had no idea what to expect when starting the book. I’d recommend beginning with an open mind. The Big Sleep has some rougher edges, but it goes down smooth as a whole. It has an engaging plot, and Chandler creates an entertaining narrator in Philip Marlowe.
The novel follows Marlowe, a private detective, as he works in the service of a wealthy old man named Sternwood, who is being blackmailed. As Marlowe unravels the blackmail plot, he discovers more and more about the seedy criminal underbelly of the city, and how it relates to Sternwood’s two daughters, Carmen and Vivian. One solved mystery leads only to more questions as Marlowe soon finds himself caught up in a case of several murders that leads him to a confrontation with a cold-blooded hitman. The plot moves briskly in The Big Sleep, and Marlowe isn’t the type of character to spend time navel-gazing. His gruff manner and piercing insights are exactly what you’d expect from a pulp novel detective, and they lead to several gleefully sharp-tongued exchanges with other characters.
The most remarkable thing about The Big Sleep is how plausible everything in it seems at first blush. However, a closer read shows that the plot is tied together through a large number of coincidences, and instances of Marlowe being in the right place at the right time to acquire crucial information. This sort of contrivance is central to detective novels because, realistically, investigating an entire underground crime web all by oneself would be a lost cause. I can forgive the unlikely events of the narrative because they contribute to the novel being readable. A detective story doesn’t need to hold up under intense scrutiny. It only has to appear plausible to the reader, and The Big Sleep achieves this.
Another thing that stands out in The Big Sleep is the period in which it takes place. First published in 1939, the novel is unabashedly a period piece. Characters smoke constantly, and Marlowe drinks far too much even to be able to tie his shoes, let alone drive and solve mysteries. Furthermore, Marlowe’s attitudes towards women and sexual minorities are about what you’d expect them to be. Still, Chandler never romanticizes Marlowe, or tries to make him into an admirable hero. He’s supposed to be a prickly and difficult man, and he certainly is.
The Big Sleep is a novel that will keep you engaged and guessing, and it is difficult to put down. There isn’t a whole lot of philosophical rumination going on (except for a tiny bit at the end, which inspires the novel’s title) but that’s a strength of the book. Chandler’s prose is terse and captivating, with a number of lines both inside and outside of dialogue that will stick with you. If you’re looking for grit, intrigue, and cigarette smoke, Raymond Chandler is your man.