Though I had heard much of his reputation as a storyteller, The Big Sleep was my first ever experience of a Raymond Chandler book; coincidentally, it is Chandler’s first novel as well.
TBS introduces us to the shadow-draped morally ambiguous world of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s much-lauded contribution to the annals of detective fiction. Marlowe is the noir sleuth archetype: inelegant but professional, cynical but honest, committed to his duty, if more than a little disgusted at the world he functions in. To Chandler’s immense credit, Marlowe escapes being a furnishing of cliché pose and while you may not call him to drive away your blues, Marlowe in his own way is a likable man.
We pick up the line of TBS’ tangled web when Marlowe takes on a case to tackle a blackmailer tapping the wealthy iron-willed but invalid General Sternwood with some incriminating notes regarding his younger daughter Carmen. Marlowe investigates, only to find that things are never as simple as they seem. Events develop a habit of going out of control, one evil thread twines with another, and murder makes appearances with alarming regularity. Time and again, Marlowe is referred by various characters to the disappearance of the husband of Sternwood’s elder daughter Vivian, till he begins to wonder why he has actually been hired.
Chandler's narrative takes through a world that, be it the more-than-“bratty rich” shenanigans of the Sternwood daughters or the gallery of shadowy characters that touch their lives at various points, is a sump of moral decay. Marlowe must make his way through the slime of dark human nature and it is a journey that will bruise him in more ways than one.
TBS is not the sort of detective tale that hangs solely upon the unraveling of the tantalizing whodunit puzzle, that dazzling flourish of ingenuity where the master-of-his-game sleuth surprises and delights us at the conclusion with his impeccable deduction. To quote Marlowe's words, “I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it.”
What Chandler offers here is a gripping and insightful journey into the darkness that lurks in the heart of a society where you don't need to pull a trigger to be a killer and morality sleeps the big sleep. TBS has a fine ending, to be sure, but it's a great book long before we get there.
P.S. this review was written a good while back when TBS was the only Marlowe book I had read. Subsequently I went through The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely. The plots are different but they follow a similar character path so yes, it's like variations on a theme but Chandler plays them well enough to be enjoyable all over again. These books are definite candidates for the re-read pile.