One genre that I have not dabbled in much is that of detective stories. Outside of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps I have had a bias based on a snobby belief that works of this genre cannot possibly be considered classic literature. After having just devoured Raymond Chandler‘s (1888-1959) The Big Sleep in a couple sittings, I can gladly say that my belief was a mistaken one.
Chandler wrote The Big Sleep in 1938, and it was first published in 1939. It quickly received considerable acclaim and its stature has grown even more since. The Big Sleep introduced the world to Philip Marlowe, who along with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, proved to be amongst the most popular and enduring literary detectives of the twentieth century. Chandler was to write three other stories with Marlowe as the lead character.
The story is somewhat complex, with double crossings and frequent surprises. Chandler’s story is crisp, very character driven, with a plot that keeps you turning the pages. Chandler’s prose is succinct and direct, without much flowery language getting in the way. He says what he means and he means what he says.
Before giving you a number of examples of Chandler’s writing style, the next few paragraphs will make your head spin as I try to summarize the story in an extremely condensed fashion, doing so in order for you to see the complexity of the plot. If you plan on reading this book, or just want to know about the Arion Press edition, you’ll want to scroll down past the next few paragraphs.
Marlowe is hired by a rich older man, General Sternwood, to deal with a blackmailer trying to extort money from the general. The blackmailer turns out to be one Arthur Gwynn Geiger, who Marlowe finds dead at his home, along with a drugged and naked Carmen Sternwood (who is the general’s daughter). Meanwhile, Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian Regan, is under the mistaken impression that Marlowe was hired to look into the disappearance of her husband. Both daughter’s are out of control and a bit wacky, to put it mildly. They both dis-like Marlowe, though both also try to seduce him for their purposes.
The next day, General Sternwoods’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, is also found mysteriously dead. Marlowe finds that Geiger’s collection of profitable and illegal pornography is moved to a place owned by Joe Brody, a former lover of Carmen’s. He visits Brody, who he believes has the pictures of Carmen and is now the blackmailer. Carmen shows up and tries to shoot Brody, but Marlowe takes the gun from her. He gets Brody to talk some, but Brody is shot dead when Geiger’s lover shows up intent on revenge. Starting to get curious of how Regan ties into this, Marlowe visits the police’s missing persons bureau and is told that Vivian Regan’s missing husband apparently ran away with the wife of a local mobster named Eddie Mars.
Eddie Mars tries to bribe Marlowe to stop looking into Regan’s disappearance. Marlowe turns the tables on a man that was tailing him, Harry Jones, and buys information from him. Marlowe is told that Mona Mars never ran off with Mr. Regan, and is in hiding so that people will not think Eddie Mars killed Regan. One of Eddie Mar’s henchmen, a man named Canino, kills Harry Jones. None-the-less, Marlowe is able to buy the secret of the location where Mona is hiding. He finds her, and a gunfight happens where he kills Canino.
Back at General Sternwood’s, Marlowe gives Carmen her gun back. She tries to shoot Marlowe, hating him for rejecting her advances. Marlowe tells Vivian his theory that Carmen killed Regan, because Regan had rejected her. Vivian admits this is what happened and tells Marlowe that she asked Eddie Mars to cover it up. Mars proceeded to blackmail her. Marlowe promises not to go the police if Carmen is institutionalized.
I did not find that this book offers much in terms of deep thoughts, or eye opening wisdom. In some ways, it is like a summer blockbuster, meant to be enjoyed, not deeply thought about. Having said that, the gritty and hard feel that Chandler gives the story, with the background of a corrupt and sordid Los Angeles always hanging over the story, brings this book into the realm of fine literature. He is a master of mood, a chronicler of a time and place in the City of Angels that has never been recorded in such a fine fashion.
The best way to get a feel for the writing of Chandler is to give you some particularly good examples. In describing Carmen Sternwood, Marlowe says:
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.
In the next example, Marlowe responds to Vivian Regan, after she pushes him to tell her why her father hired him:
I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind you ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a scotch bottle. I don’t mind you showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross examine me.
As you can see, his writing contains some humor mixed in with the hardness. His descriptions are concise, but with descriptive clarity, as in this example:
He fixed the lock on his door and we went down to the official parking lot and got into a small blue sedan. We drove out Sunset, using the siren once in a while to beat a signal. It was a crisp morning, with just enough snap in the air to make life seem simple and sweet, if you didn’t have too much on your mind. I did.
Even more so, the following shows how Chandler says a lot, in few words.
I took the automatic elevator up to my floor and walked along the hallway to the tune of a muted radio behind a door. I needed a drink and was in a hurry to get one. I didn’t switch the light on inside the door. I made straight for the kitchenette and brought up short in three or four feet. Something was wrong. Something in the air, a scent.
Here, Marlowe describes a picture of the missing Regan in a manner that almost puts the reader in a smoky room, looking at the photograph themselves:
I looked at an Irish face that was more sad than merry and more reserved than brash. Not the face of a tough guy and not the face of a man that could be pushed around much by anybody…A face that looked a little taut, the face of a man who would move fast and play for keeps.
At one point, Marlowe is beat up and tied up by those wishing to do him harm. His description of his condition is classic Chandler:
I moved my head a little, carefully. It hurt, but not more than I expected. I was trussed like a turkey ready for the oven. Handcuffs held my wrists behind me and a rope went from them to my ankles and then over the end of the brown davenport on which I was sprawled.
Marlowe always stays moral, fighting against what seems like an overwhelming world of corruption around him. In the following example, when asked why he is sticking with this case when by doing so he is making enemies everywhere, Marlowe responds:
I don’t like it, but what the hell am I to do? I’m on a case. I’m selling what I have to sell to make a living. What little guts and intelligence the Lord gave me and a willingness to get pushed around in order to protect a client. It’s against my principles to tell as much as I’ve told tonight…As for the cover-up…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.
The ‘big sleep’ is a euphemism for death. At the very end, Marlowe contemplates this.
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 now.
About the Edition
Like all Arion Press books, this one is pretty special. It feels and looks just how it should for this story. The book is loaded with a series of monochromatic photographs meant to portray the characters and action of the plot. When I first received the book, I thought the photographs were marvelously done (from an artistic standpoint), but I was skeptical that I would actually like the book being laden with them. For fictional works, I like to develop my own mental image based on the author’s writing, perhaps helped along by nice sketches or watercolors that help stoke the imagination, whereas photos take away that opportunity. However, just as Chandler’s writing itself changes my opinion on the qualities of this genre, this edition changes my view of the significant supporting role photographs can play in greatly enhancing fictional stories.
The photos were done by Lou Stoumen (1917-1991), a film director and producer who won two academy awards. If an academy award could be given for “film within a book”, Stoumen certainly would win it for this effort. The photo’s are perfectly placed and gives the reader a feeling of watching film noir, providing atmosphere, action and greater depth of character.
The Big Sleep was the 19th title published by Arion Press, done in 1986. The edition I have is one with variant binding. As you can see with the pictures below, the binding is with a Blue Iris cloth spine and corners and a paper spine label. Blue-grey paper sides are printed with a reproduction of the original cover image. According to the Arion Press website, they appear to actually have one of these to sell. The original was bound in bevelled plexiglass boards and curved plexiglass spine, with silkscreened titling and decoration.
Details of the edition:
- Illustrated with 40 Photographs by Lou Stoumen (who also signs the book)
- Introduction by Lawrence Clark Powell (1906-2001)
- Designed and printed under the direction of Andrew Hoyem at the Arion Press
- Text printed by letterpress in Scotch Roman and Futura Black for display
- Monotype was composed by Mackenzie-Harris
- Mohawk Superfine paper
- Photographs printed by photolithography by Phelps-Schaefer in blue/black duotone over opaque white, finished with a double varnish
- Binding by Schuberth Bookbindery
- 8″x10″, 252 pages
- Limited to 425 copies
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