In the post-Prohibition era, America was left reeling from the terrible reign of crime, and the 1930s saw a severe uptick in acts of violence and drug usage across the country. The violence and fear of this time bled into the literature published during that time, and no work serves as a greater example of this than Raymond Chandler’s debut novel, The Big Sleep, featuring one of literature’s most famous private investigators: Philip Marlowe.
After receiving a call from General Sternwood, a elderly man with two wayward daughters in their twenties, Philip Marlowe expects the hire to be a simple open-and-shut blackmail case. However, as Marlowe digs deeper into what a bookseller named Arthur Geiger has on Sternwood’s wild younger daughter Carmen, he discovers that all is not what it seems. Between meeting Joe Brody, a man who had blackmailed the Sternwoods before; Agnes, a dangerous blonde who manages to escape murder scenes on three separate occasions, and Vivian Regan, Sternwood’s eldest daughter, it is the latter that ends up becoming the focus of Marlowe’s case.
As it turns out, all roads lead to Rusty Regan, the missing husband of Vivian Regan. Rumour has it that he ran away with the wife of a powerful crime leader, Eddie Mars, but Marlowe’s investigation into the people involved reveals that there actually may be more to the story. Despite vehemently informing all who ask that he is not looking for Rusty Regan, Marlowe’s most interesting detective sequences spawn from him being in the right place at the right time, and so unearthing more secrets, lies, and blackmail-worthy tales than one might suspect at the surface.
With its likeable protagonist and complex plot, The Big Sleep definitely is an interesting read. Although it was markedly different from novels I’ve read in the past, the fascinating mystery within a mystery structure as well as the unique prose and slang certainly lended the novel a time-machine air, allowing the reader to, in effect, travel back in time to the 1930s, to see what life was like in the time period it was set. Because of this, I would absolutely recommend this novel to any fans of mystery novels, historical or otherwise.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.