Raymond Chandler — The Big Sleep

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

I’m determined not to allow a professor I had in college–a cowboyish, awfully misogynistic film professor who of course loved noir–ruin noir for me. Luckily, it’s easier with Chandler, because we never touched on his writing. Oh, he tried to ruin Double Indemnity and The Third Man and all of the rest of them, but thankfully, Philip Marlowe is all my own.

Chandler pretty much sets the standard for this kind of hardboiled detective novel, in my opinion–I prefer Marlowe even to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, published nine years earlier by Hammett (though of course, not comparable to Nick & Nora by any stretch). Chandler’s language is deceptively simple, but there’s a kind of poetry to its short sentences and atmospheric but pointed use of adjectives. This is the kind of dark, dingy city that you can see, smell, feel, all unfolding in a book before you. Not only is it poetic, it’s funny. Chandler’s wry sense of humor is all over the pages, letting in sly little digs when you least expect them.

Marlowe, too, is a fantastic main character, something of an anomaly amongst characters of his type, despite his alcoholism and prize-fighter qualities, due to his more contemplative nature. Could you, for example, picture Sam Spade playing chess against himself? Of course not. There is a hidden depth to Marlowe that is revealed only in little clues throughout the series of books, and that’s why it’s so much fun.

The actual mystery is ridiculous, of course: it’s convulted and in some cases even the author didn’t know how a murder happened (though I won’t spoil it and tell you which one). The neat tying-up of the mystery doesn’t matter though: the fun is watching Marlowe bust through the obstacles, whether by force or the strategic offer of a drink.

(Another, slightly silly and more personal tiny thing that I like about the book is that there’s a sarcastic Jewish girl running a rare used bookstore and reading a law book. Feels like making a spiritual cameo, in a way.)

In short, this is a classic and a standard for a reason. It’s a damn good book.

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 carying about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell…

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