"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 caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
First up, confession time. Apart from Harlequin-grade romance, I’m less familiar with crime fiction than any other genre. I cut my grown-up teeth on John Grisham and Stephen King and moved on to classics, so with the exception of Victorian crime novels like The Woman in White, I’m unfamiliar. That said, there was an awful lot in The Big Sleep that felt familiar. As Chris mentioned in his review, this isn’t really Chandler’s fault. His books and his protagonist Philip Marlowe have been so influential that returning to the source is a little like watching your first performance of Romeo and Juliet.
That said, it’s worth noting that The Big Sleep, like Romeo and Juliet, is much better than most of its derivatives. This is hard-boiled crime fiction at its most hard-boiled: The women are all beautiful femme fatales, the men are all tough guys, and the plots are twisted and complex in all the ways you’d expect. A plot summary would probably run longer than one of Christopher’s reviews, so just think about a noir you’re familiar with, say, L. A. Confidential, and imagine it’s a lot like that, because it is. For better or worse, it was almost exactly the way I expected it would be. That’s not to say it’s bad. Marlowe is a likeable guy. In spite of his noir exterior, he repeatedly resists seduction by various women, large bribes from dangerous men, and polite conversation with, well, everyone to pursue the best interests of his client. The ending is pretty surprising, and the book doesn’t take too long to read. If this all sounds like damning with faint praise, that’s not exactly what’s up—it’s just that The Big Sleep is out of my regular ballpark and I don’t really know what to say about it.
It’s worth noting, though, that Chandler is quite a good writer, and sometimes he’ll turn out a surprisingly evocative paragraph, like the excerpt above. He’s also quite good with similes—witness, “He wore a blue overcoat that fitted him like a stall fits a horse” or "The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings."
As for themes, I struggled to find anything in particular beyond “the world is a violent, dangerous place”, but a repeated line in the novel, “This is a big city now” might give some insight into Marlowe’s mind and help explain the popularity of Chandler’s novels seventy years after their publication. Marlowe is a complex character, but his motives are simple. He wants to complete the job and be able to live with himself. However, throughout the novel, he finds himself stymied by the big world: gangsters, police, women. Through it all, Marlowe is true only to himself and his own moral code. To him, the world is still, at its heart, a simple place, full of complex people with complex motives who are nevertheless the same as they’ve always been: petty, greedy, sometimes noble, and, in spite of their complex circumstances, simple.