The Big Sleep
“You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was.” ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Born in Chicago, raised in a suburb of London, and schooled in a private British preparatory school, Raymond Chandler remarked: "I had to learn American just like a foreign language." He was successful in that endeavor, although it took him quite a while to gain success as a professional writer.
It was Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, that brought him his first major success in 1939. It is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would consider cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom have experienced in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters (sometimes one in the same).
Chandler does not rely on dialogue alone. There are serious themes that permeate the narrative. The Big Sleep takes place in a big city in America during the 1930s—the period of the Great Depression when America was, as a whole, disillusioned and cynical about its prospects for the future. Chandler mentions money throughout the novel as an ideal, a goal for the seedy crime ring that lives within the novel. Many of the characters kill and bribe for money. The opening page of the novel claims that Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is "dressed up" because he is about to enter a house that is worth millions. He also chooses to portray this world as dark and corrupt. No one, not even the law, is exempt from corruption in this novel: newspapers lie and cops can be bought (not unlike our world today). Corruption is reflected in various ways throughout the novel. First, The Big Sleep is dark in that it is a novel in which rain pervades. It is also a novel in which richness is juxtaposed against the grime of deserted oilfields. The oilfields themselves—including the deserted one with empty pumps and rusted remains in which Carmen Sternwood, daughter of his client, attempts to kill Marlowe and in which Rusty Regan is lying dead—are symbolic.
His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. I was impressed with the way Chandler's prose made you feel that you were living in a specific time and place, Los Angeles in the 30s. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to read this author and experience one of the supreme experts on crime and the criminal in American fiction.