A Searing Debut

Many a writer has had a trailblazing start to their literary career. At a young age, they were already able to achieve the success that remains elusive to some. They are virtuosos, literary prodigies. Among this esteemed group are Mary Shelley, Bret Easton Ellis, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Carson McCullers, and Victor Hugo. They would forge prolific careers which would transcend time. It is not, however, uncommon to find success stories later in their lives. Some had to go through several failures before finally getting that big break. There are also some who started with a different occupation before pursuing a career in writing.

Sidney Sheldon, for instance, was a playwright and a director before he made a huge leap of faith in his early 50s. Maryse Conde was teaching in schools across Africa before she published her first novel in 1976 when she was nearly into her forties. At a young age, Amor Towles’ writing talent was already palpable. However, it was only in his forties that he rediscovered his love for writing after two decades of working as an investment professional. Raymond Chandler, on the other hand, jumped from one career to another. He worked in the civil service and served in the army during the First World War. At one point, he worked at the Los Angeles Creamery. The crash of his oil investments during the Great Depression opened him a new opportunity in writing. In 1939, Chandler made his literary breakthrough with the publication of his first novel, The Big Sleep.

At the center of The Big Sleep is Philip Marlowe, a private investigator who would figure prominently in Chandler’s succeeding works. Set in Lost Angeles post-Great Depression, the story commenced in the month of October when Marlowe was called to the palatial house of General Sternwood. A wealthy former military man, Sternwood made his fortune from oilfields. However, his younger daughter, Carmen, was being threatened by a bookseller named Arthur Geiger. Geiger was blackmailing her for reasons that were ambiguous at the start. General Sternwood decided to intervene on his daughter’s behalf, thus, his urgent request for Marlowe’s assistance to put an end to the blackmailing. Marlowe agreed to take on the case.

“I didn’t mind what she called me, what anybody called me. But this was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much: a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that. Nothing. Such as they were, they had all my memories.”

~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Upon his visit to Geiger’s bookstore, Marlowe immediately sensed that there was something off about Geiger’s business. What was masquerading as a bookstore was actually a library that lent works of erotica. Marlowe followed Geiger home only to hear gunshots and two cars speeding away. To his horror, he found Geiger lifeless, and beside him was Carmen, drugged and naked. On the side was a mysterious but empty camera. After taking Carmen home, Marlowe returned to Geiger’s house only to find it emptied of Geiger’s lifeless body. He quickly retreated from the crime scene. More mysterious events transpired with the passage of days. A car owned by the Sternwoods was found driven off the pier. Inside was another dead body, that of the family chauffeur.

Meanwhile, Geiger’s bookstore was emptied of all its content. The inventory was moved to the home of Joe Brody, another shady character who once blackmailed Carmen. As dead bodies pile up, the more complicated the case got. What seemed to be a simple case of blackmailing was not so simple after all. On the surface, the novel is a detective-cum-mystery novel. We follow Marlowe as he tries to get to the bottom of the incidents. People ended up getting horribly murdered. There were numerous disappearances. The police were hot on everyone’s trail but the cases were left unsolved. On the surface, these cases seem unrelated. However, as more pieces of evidence started to surface, it was increasingly becoming apparent that these cases were all somehow connected, in one way or another, with the Sternwood family.

On top of all of these, Marlowe must contend with different outside forces looking to throw him off-kilter, among them Vivian, Carmen’s older sister. Marlowe’s first encounter with Vivian was during his first visit to the Sternwood estate, just after meeting the patriarch. Like her father, Vivian had her own concern which she shared with the private detective. Her husband, Rusty Reagan, has also disappeared. While they shared a loveless marriage, Vivian was perplexed by her husband’s sudden disappearance. It was speculated that Rusty ran away with Mona Mars, the wife of Eddie Mars, a casino owner. Mars was a close friend of Carmen. Vivian also occasionally gambled at Mars’ casino.

In this swirl of deaths and disappearances, morality loomed large as a prominent theme in the story. The major characters had brazen virtues. The novel was brimming with examples of moral corruption. We sense, for instance, that General Sternwood doesn’t always earn through licit means. The oilfields from which the family earned its fortune then turn into a physical manifestation of immorality. Mars’ casino was another vivid example. Envy, lust, and violence were ubiquitous. Each character’s motivations, while seemingly innocent at first, were often clouded with suspicion; they were rarely straightforward in their intentions. Marlowe, swept in the midst of this cesspool, was pulled towards all directions.

“Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the sidewalk. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places. The rain drummed hard on the roof of the car and the burbank top began to leak. A pool of water formed on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in. It was too early in the fall for that kind of rain.”

~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

On the backdrop, Chandler provided a vivid portrait of Los Angeles. It was a period of significant change as the city experienced exponential growth. Chandler himself bore witness to how the city’s population ballooned from about half a million to more than two million. The discovery of oil toward the close of the 19th century played an important role in the growth of the city. The rise of Hollywood and the film industry further drove this growth. Hollywood also played an important role in keeping the city afloat while the rest of the nation suffered from the consequences of the Great Depression. What was once a Spanish outpost established in 1769 by Gaspar de Portolá has grown into a metropolis, currently the second largest city in the United States, and the largest on the West Coast.

Los Angeles has also become an established economic powerhouse in the contemporary. However, it has not always been as prosperous as it is now, especially after post-Depression. As the city’s economy grew exponentially, different groups of migrants from across the country and the world started arriving in the city, attracted by its glitz and glamour and by the quintessence of the American Dream. From the Midwest, the Dust Bowl migrants arrived. They were followed by immigrants from Mexico and China. Black southerners also opted to settle into the city. As this diverse group of people converged in Los Angeles, criminality also increased. Syndicates of organized crime were everywhere. Exacerbating this was corruption which has invaded every level of society. Politicians and policemen were colluding with the syndicates. Before Las Vegas, Los Angeles was a city of sins. These harrowing conditions were captured by the novel.

It was this organized system, compounded with the decadent lifestyle of the rich and the privileged, that Marlowe had to contend with. It also made him one of the notable figures in hardboiled fiction. It is a genre popularized by Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), a writer whose works appeared in pulp magazines. This genre was characterized by graphic scenes of sexual and often violent nature. A key element to the story is a vivid but often shoddy setting. Works of this genre often feature a detective, like Marlowe. We read about how they challenged the underground world of organized crimes during Prohibition. Chandler was seminal in the refinement of the genre which had its peak during the 1930s to the 1950s. The genre’s influences still reverberate in the contemporary as several crime fiction writers emulate the qualities of this era.

The story was accented with the exploration, in varying degrees, of a plethora of subjects. Human mortality was a recurring subject that loomed large in the story. It was grappled with alongside the story’s other main subject of amorality. The biggest giveaway was the book’s title, which was a euphemism for death. In the closing pages of the book, Marlowe contemplated death: “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? 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.” Elsewhere, the novel underscored social class dynamics. The poor are chess pieces that the rich can dispose of any way they want. The complications of gender and sexuality were also subtly highlighted in the story.

“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. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony and sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem.”

~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

All of the novel’s fine elements were woven together into a vivid tapestry by Chandler. His prose delivered an absorbing story with relentless action. There is a descriptive quality to his writing that made the setting come alive. This quality captured the beat of Los Angeles, painting both its fine qualities and its dark alleys. Amidst the glitz and glamour are rotten elements. All of these elements that coexisted in the sphere of Los Angeles were vividly painted by Chandler. His imagery was on full display, with elements such as the weather and the flora giving the story a distinct complexion. Marlowe, on the other hand, was a wonderfully developed character. We know nothing about him at first – we meet him in medias res – but as the story moved forward, we get to know him more. He was also flawed, but in a story rife with characters with brazen values, he was the lone conscience.

The Big Sleep is undoubtedly a searing debut from a writer who would be a driving force for an important literary school of detective fiction. At its heart is a private detective who was the very epitome of the hardboiled detective. What seemed an easy case at the start developed into an intricate web of deceptions, lies, and deceit, that inevitably commands the readers’ attention. It may have been published in 1939 but its influences continue to resonate in the contemporary. It was adapted into film twice. It was voted 96th in the 100 Books of the Century by Le Monde. It was also listed in the Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels in 2005 and in BBC News’ list of the 100 most influential novels. Indeed, The Big Sleep is a literary classic that transcends time.

“I looked at her again. She lay still now, her face pale against the pillow, her eyes large and dark and empty as rain barrels in a drought. One of her small five-fingered thumbless hands picked at the cover restlessly. There was a vague glimmer of doubt starting to get born in her somewhere. She didn’t know about it yet. It’s so hard for women – even nice women – to realise that their bodies are not irresistible.”

~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Rating

83%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
26%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Prior to 2005, I have never heard of Raymond Chandler nor had I read any of his works. If it was not for must-read, I would have never encountered him or any of his works. Even when I encountered one of his works, The Big Sleep, during a book fair, it didn’t immediately hit me that he was a name I keep on coming across on these lists. Anyway, I obtained a copy of The Big Sleep unaware of the accolades it has accumulated over the years. While it was one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, it did take me some time before I was finally able to read it. The book immediately hit the ground running, which is a good thing for me. From that point on, the story never relented as I followed Marlowe all over Los Angeles. While detective fiction is a part of the literary world I rarely venture into, Chandler’s writing did keep me invested from the onset. The Big Sleep left a great impression that makes me look forward to reading more of Chandler’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Raymond Chandler
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 263
Genre: Hardboiled, Detective Fiction

Synopsis

Raymond Chandler created the fast-talking, trouble-seeking Californian private eye Philip Marlowe for his first great novel The Big Sleep in 1939. Marlowe’s entanglement with the Sternwood family – and an attendant cast of colourful figures – is the background to a story reflecting all the tarnished glitter of the great American Dream.

About the Author

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born on July 23, 1888, in Chicago, Illinois, USA but spent his childhood in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. In 1900, his mother moved them to the area of Upper Norwood in what is now the London Borough of Croydon, England. He attended Dulwich College in London but skipped a university education. Instead, he spent time in Paris and Munich to improve his foreign language skills. He then took on a variety of occupations such as being a reporter for the Daily Express and a writer for the Westminster Gazette. In 1912, he returned to America where he again took on menial jobs such as stringing tennis rackets and picking fruits. At one point, he worked at the Los Angeles Creamery. During the First World War, he served in the Canadian army and then in the Royal Flying Corps (afterward the Royal Air Force).

Post-war, he returned to California in 1919 only to suffer a financial setback during the Depression. Chandler then turned to his writing talent to earn a living. He learned how to write pulp fiction and in 1933, his first published short story appeared in Black Mask, a pulp magazine. After writing several short stories, he finally published his first novel, The Big Sleep in 1939. It is a fusion of two of his published short stories, Killer in the Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). The novel would go figure prominently as the epitome of hard-boiled detective fiction. The novel’s main protagonist, Philip Marlowe would also be the hero in Chandler’s succeeding novels: Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953), and Playback (1958). 

Chandler has also published several short story collections, among them Five Murderers (1944), The Simple Art of Murder (1950), and The Midnight Raymond Chandler (1971). From 1943, Chandler worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Among his best-known scripts were for the films Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951). The last was written in collaboration with Czenzi Ormonde.

Chandler passed away on March 26, 1959, in La Jolla, California, where the Chandler family moved to and settled in in 1946.