Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Big Sleep (1939)

The Big Sleep (1939: Philip Marlowe#1) by Raymond Chandler: Worried that in seeing the great Howard Hawks adaptation of The Big Sleep you've ruined yourself for the novel? Worry not! The novel diverges enough by page 50 or so that it's pretty much a different story than the movie.

Of course, it's also a lot more explicitly bigoted and homophobic than the movie, so there's that too. Get through that stuff and you've got a superior hard-boiled detective novel, one which had a psychological and stylistic depth that would influence hard-boiled fiction ever after.

This is the first novel-length adventure of Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the Los Angeles PI with a heart of gold. Well, gold alloyed with cynicism and pithy, pungent comments on The Way Things Are. Chandler's Marlowe arrives here pretty much entirely formed. He'll stay on a case if he thinks justice needs to be done, regardless of what a client wants. He likes chess, whiskey, and pondering the dusty nature of his office.

The written word in America 1939 had a bit more freedom than Hollywood movies in 1946, so certain portions of the plot are simply a bit more explicit when it comes to the pornography ring that drives part of the action. This also leads to the bigotry and homophobia becoming more explicit -- Bogart couldn't utter the opinion that "a pansy has no iron in his bones" in a movie, but Marlowe sure can, and does, in the novel. Hoo ha!

Nonetheless, the novel still reads with a surprising amount of stylistic freshness. Chandler was not better than all those who would follow him into the hardboiled world he remade, but he certainly was better than most -- and better than Dashiell Hammett, who was the epitome of the hardboiled writer before Chandler. Highly recommended.

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