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Chandler's "The Big Sleep": Noir at its Best

"It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars." - Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep

A few weeks ago I was feeling a little cynical, fatalistic, and morally ambiguous, which made me realize that I needed a little noir in my life. To satisfy that need, I fell back on an old classic, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Written in 1939, this is the first entry in Chandler's successful Philip Marlowe series, introducing the detective to the world in a story that would eventually make it to the big screen starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Philip Marlowe is a private detective who gets twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses. It's not a glamorous life, but it suits him fine. A dying millionaire hires Marlowe to deal with the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters. However, Marlowe's extortion investigation is only complicated by kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder.

Chandler's The Big Sleep is dark, edgy, and compelling. It is a powerful read that moves with tremendous speed through a seamy world of bisexual pornographers, deadly hitmen, dangerous hoodlums, and corrupt cops. It is a collection of topics that would seem tame in today's literary world, but taboo in the late 1930s. However, Raymond Chandler handles the taboos with grace and dignity by anchoring the story around the incorruptible Marlowe. The detective shuns any attempt to bribe, and shows an unexpected integrity that wins the reader's respect.

Chandler's unique use of metaphors and language has become a hallmark in detective fiction, being often imitated. Readers unfamiliar with Chandler's work might be tempted to write off The Big Sleep as just another stereotypical hard-boiled detective novel, until you realize that Raymond Chandler more or less invented the American noir detective novel. Once you read the book from that perspective, the characters become so much more than stereotypes. They become templates on which all others are based.

The Big Sleep was a pleasure to read, and should be on the reading list of any hardcore mystery lover.

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