There’s a phenomenon that occurs when someone experiences for the first time an incredibly influential piece of culture having already consumed many many examples of things that were influenced by it – you can be a little underwhelmed and feel that it appears derivative when in fact it’s the inspiration of things that seem more original. My experience of The Big Sleep was a little like that. Worse I have second hand parody versions in another medium playing in my head as I read. What I’m recognising as similar is probably the dialogue from Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Play it Again Sam or even Who Killed Roger Rabbit. I don’t think I can imagine never having heard all those echoes but I’ll try to not judge the book on them in this review.
The Big Sleep is a crime novel in which a private detective Phillip Marlowe is employed by a dying rich old man to look into the apparent blackmail of one of his two adult daughters. The case starts off seeming simple but a couple of dead bodies later and things become more complicated. How much you like this book will probably depend on how much you like Marlowe. Fortunately I found him tougher but sympathetic, more so than perhaps the snippets pf movie portrayals might have led me to believe. I think that’s partly because you have that inner monologue and because he’s cheeky and funny and ultimately humane. How can you not love someone who can come out with this, for instance?
…there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots of the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
I did enjoy this book although the plot got a little too convoluted for my failing short-term memory at one point but fortunately it was just a few pages after that that Chandler put in a big exposition scene that explained everything so far. Unfortunately one of the parodies I’ve mentioned above contains a scene with enough superficial similarity to this story that I guessed the ending, however that was not a major problem and I might well have guessed it any way. It was relatively short (I’m currently reading a Stephen King!) but it packed a lot into that and didn’t outstay its welcome. I read it in an edition that includes two other Marlowe novels – The Long Goodbye and Farewell My Lovely and I will probably read them at some point.
7/10 – enjoy the original and try to ignore the many copies.