There’s Holmes and there’s Marlowe, and then there’s everyone else,” said the pretty, short-haired, spectacled girl at the Strand Bookstore, New York. I nodded in perhaps-agreement. And then we went back to discussing Higashino, Rankin and Camilleri. It was a few years back, but that sentence has stayed with me.
The Big Sleep is one of the novels that make up the elite canon of detective fiction. It was released in 1939, and was the first published novel by Raymond Chandler. The hardboiled genre of detective fiction, which was given shape by Dashiell Hammett, was perfected by Chandler. In terms of magnitude and magnificence, The Big Sleep is, in my opinion, the definitive hardboiled mystery novel.
The plot of the novel is famous for its many twists and turns. At the start, we meet private investigator Philip Marlowe in the mansion of old General Sternwood, an oil baron. Marlowe is offered the job of taking care of a bookseller, Arthur Geiger, who blackmails the wild-child younger daughter of Sternwood, Carmen. We also get to know that Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian’s husband, Rusty Regan, who was perhaps a bootlegger and a thug, has disappeared. On his way out of the Sternwood mansion, Marlowe has a rather feisty encounter with Vivian, who is convinced that her father has hired him to search for her husband.
Marlowe then goes to take a look at Geiger’s bookstore. He figures out that the bookstore is a ruse for a pornography-lending library. Marlowe then sees Geiger come by to the store for a brief while, and follows him to his house. While stalking the Geiger house, he sees Carmen Sternwood walk in. Sometime later, there is a scream from inside the house, and gunshots. A couple of cars are seen fleeing the scene. Marlowe walks in to see Geiger shot dead, and a naked and delusional Carmen sitting in front of a camera. The story has exploded to life.
Casino owners, professional killers, blackmailers and other disreputable characters will soon visit the story, and will take it meandering towards its many sub-plots. The reader will never be sure of anyone’s motives right till the end. More people will take the big sleep — a gangster terminology for death. And when the story finally comes together to its multi-threaded finale, the reader will know that this has been some journey.
Why is Philip Marlowe important? He wasn’t the first hardboiled detective — Dashiell Hammett pioneered the genre, James M Cain started before Chandler. But no other person embodied the wisecracking, proud, gallant loner that is the hardboiled detective better than Marlowe. Then there’s the writing. Chandler’s writing is like a slap of crisp, hot breeze on the face, late on a tiring summer’s day — brutal, uncompromising, and unforgettable. Clean as a whistle. Sparse. And enough. Read The Big Sleep if you haven’t already.
(The writer is Financial Architect in angalore, whose short stories have been published in magazines in India and Singapore)