Frank Showalter's Reviews > The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
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really liked it

After abandoning my last read, I wanted a sure thing. Something I’d read and loved. Something with an engrossing plot and inspired prose.

I came to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep via the movie. During my freshman year in college, a junior-level class was screening film noirs. The showings were open to all students.

Despite the grainy, 16-millimeter projection, it hooked me. Crackling dialog, relentless plot, and iconic performances.

Two years later, I went on a two-week trip to the United Kingdom.

I spent much of that trip exploring bookstores. Hard-boiled detective fiction was everywhere. Endcaps, table displays, dedicated shelves. The kind of promotion paranormal romance enjoys today.

Seeing Chandler’s work promoted in shop after shop sold me. I confess, the idea of reading classic crime fiction in a London pub felt cool.

The plot sees private investigator Philip Marlowe take an aging tycoon’s blackmail case that spirals into a labyrinthine series of murders.

As in the film, one murder remains unresolved. During the movie’s production, star Humphrey Bogart and director Howard Hawks argued over this dangling plot thread. They wired Chandler asking for clarification. Chandler replied, “Damned if I know.”

Not that it matters. The film lifts its best lines straight from the book. Chandler was a master of cynical hyperbole and whip-smart metaphors. Consider this bit of atmosphere describing a dingy office building:


An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse.


Damn, that’s good.

But, reading the book again, I struggled with Marlowe’s overt homophobia. Consider this scene, for example:


“Don’t kid me, son. The fag gave you one. You’ve got a nice clean manly little room in there. He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors. He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men. Think I can’t figure people like him and you out?”

I still held his automatic more or less pointed at him, but he swung on me just the same. It caught me flush on the chin. I backstepped fast enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.


Were it just the dialog, I’d dismiss it as Marlowe baiting the kid into taking a swing. But it extends to Marlowe’s inner monologue. That’s harder to stomach.

I’d like to think Chandler added these bits to distance us from Marlowe. To give Marlowe some edge by incorporating some character flaws. To hint that, for all his nobility, Marlowe has a dark side.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. More likely, Chandler added them as a cheap way to label some characters as deviants and paint Marlowe as a macho tough guy.

Chandler knew better. Consider this exchange when a would-be tough guy calls on Marlowe with information to sell:


His eyes bulged and his lower lip almost fell in his lap. “Christ, how’d you know that?” he said.

“I’m psychic. Shake your business up and pour it. I haven’t got all day.”


Shake your business up and pour it. That’s how you write a tough guy.

So what to make of the book? I’d long considered it one of the best I’d ever read, but this latest read made me reconsider.

It’s a good book, with moments of indisputable greatness, but ignoring the homophobia, or excusing it as a product of its time, would be disingenuous.

Chandler knew better.
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Reading Progress

July 1, 2012 – Shelved
January 29, 2016 – Started Reading
January 29, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
January 29, 2016 –
page 9
4.09%
January 29, 2016 –
page 9
4.09%
January 29, 2016 –
page 27
12.27%
January 29, 2016 –
page 0
0.0%
January 29, 2016 –
page 27
12.27%
January 29, 2016 –
page 27
12.27%
January 29, 2016 –
page 27
12.27%
January 30, 2016 –
page 47
21.36%
January 30, 2016 –
page 47
21.36%
January 31, 2016 –
page 52
23.64%
January 31, 2016 –
page 58
26.36%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 70
31.82%
February 1, 2016 –
page 78
35.45%
February 3, 2016 –
page 104
47.27%
February 3, 2016 –
page 114
51.82%
February 3, 2016 –
page 118
53.64%
February 4, 2016 –
page 133
60.45%
February 5, 2016 –
page 150
68.18%
February 6, 2016 –
page 162
73.64%
February 6, 2016 –
page 166
75.45%
February 8, 2016 –
page 174
79.09%
February 9, 2016 –
page 184
83.64%
February 10, 2016 –
page 191
86.82%
February 12, 2016 – Finished Reading

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