75 years of The Big Sleep

Astonishingly, this month sees the 75th anniversary of the publication of Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel The Big Sleep. Francis, a member of staff at Marylebone Library, gives his view:

The Big Sleep, by Raymond ChandlerUnlike many of his ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’ contemporaries, Chandler’s novels stand up to be re-read today. Personally I think this is due to taut, well structured prose and exciting, albeit often convoluted, plots set in an atmospheric, corrupt Los Angeles environment of gangsters, blackmailers, police, and millionaires whose wealth & power enables them to bypass the law. This is a far cry from the domestic country house murder in southern England investigated by a gentleman amateur detective.

Chandler is also a very good descriptive writer of the geographical setting of Los Angeles and its surrounding countryside. Within this world Philip Marlowe, private investigator, took on cases as a means of living rather than a hobby.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
The Simple Art of Murder

If this sounds too intense, there are a number of amusing one liner sentences scattered within the prose; also sentences which lead the reader on:

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to be.”
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.”
– The Big Sleep

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.
– The Big Sleep

I can’t also resist quoting one of his most famous sentences which appears in many books of quotations:

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
Farewell My Lovely

Indemnity Only, by Sara Paretsky (2007 edition)I admit some people may be put off by the implied sexism of two of these quotes. Also as Chandler’s prose has been frequently parodied, many people may have dismissed his novels as clichéd pulp crime fiction. However I am encouraged by the fact that Sara Paretsky, in the introduction to a new edition of her first novel Indemnity Only acknowledges her debt to Chandler with her lone female Chicago private investigator VI Warshawski, who also faces similar corruption, gangsters etc. but in a modern urban Chicago setting.

Film noir by Eddie RobsonHollywood seized upon The Big Sleep as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart , one of several Chandler novels to be filmed. In fact Raymond Chandler had further links with Hollywood as he was employed as a screen writer adapting some of his own books to screen and also as script writer to the classic film Double Indemnity. These and similar films are categorised as Film Noir. Anyone wishing to study the genre further should visit Westminster Reference Library, whose cinema collection includes several relevant encyclopaedias and studies.

To find out more information about both Raymond Chandler and Sarah Paretsky, take a look at Contemporary Authors – biographical and bibliographical information on more than 120,000 modern authors. Perhaps surprisingly, due to the fact of his relatively short residency in Britain, Raymond Chandler also has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Both these resources can be accessed remotely online – just log in with your Westminster Libraries membership card number.

[Francis]

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