The Big Sleep

Following the suggestion of Pechorin’s Journal, I read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep on my way home from Miami to Cebu. In this mystery novel, private detective novel Philip Marlowe is hired by a dying millionaire in a case of blackmail involving his two daughters. But as these kinds of yarn go, Marlowe inevitably gets caught up in complications that include pornography, murder and all that usual stuff.

My initial impression of the book is the thought that it must be the source of all those detective story clichés abounding in pocketbooks, films, and TV series: the protagonist is a world-weary sleuth who postures as a tough guy but really has a goody-goody heart, the women are either silly victims or seductive femme fatales, and the dialogue are all crisp and witty as if the characters all consciously agreed with each other to talk in soundbytes, etc.

Another initial impression would be to categorize it as a good example of a work of fiction that unhurriedly builds suspense (withholding details from the reader for later satisfaction) while at the same time not forgetting to foreground the narrative (providing enough details so as to not make the ending so much of a surprise but a belated realization). The conclusion comes as something you seem to intuitively know but can only recognize when it’s already revealed by the narrator to you. I like the way the title insinuates the solution to the problem presented at the beginning of the novel. The ending does not come as a complete surprise:

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. (216)

A scene from the 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep.

I therefore didn’t find The Big Sleep that interesting. Perhaps my attention was too taken by my homecoming (or the fact that I’m departing a place I’d rather not leave)? Or maybe the cynical theme (yes, the system is rotten but we cannot do anything about it but go along) as epitomized by the following passage has become too passé for me:

As for the cover-up, I’ve been in police business myself, as you know. They come a dime a dozen in any big city. Cops get very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same thing themselves every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull. (106)

I don’t have to add that this world-weariness is precisely the predominant ideological mode in the present era of late capitalism. But still I have to hand it to Chandler for churning out some charming lines. The Big Sleep is still, after all, a classic in the mystery genre. Alluding to the cynical disposition of his profession, Marlowe comments, “Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” The detective protagonist goes on to describe someone tailing him as “a fellow trying to pick up a girl and lacking the last inch of nerve…”

My favourite bit is Marlowe’s take on a long tradition of detective fiction that endures up to the present in TV series like CSI: “I’m not Sherlock Homes or Philo Vance. I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken point and build a case from it.” ■

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