Reading Chandler’s classic detective novel The Big Sleep is a journey back to the LA before freeways, to a time when there were oil derricks in Hollywood and automobiles ruled the streets and blonds ruled everything else. This story is a good read for the 21st century to get a glimpse of the LA scene that has changed forever.
The novel opens with Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s iconic detective, driving his beat-up convertible into the heights above West Hollywood to see a rich man who is being blackmailed. In Marlow’s words:
I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
The rich man was General Sternwood; he and his daughters Vivian and Carmen lived in a mansion overlooking Hollywood. He described his daughters to Marlowe:
Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I.
The reader is immediately drawn into this story from the first page of the novel. I think of the great movie version of the novel by Howard Hawks, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, Lauren Bacall as Vivian and Martha Vickers as Carmen. (William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, not Chandler.) What a great movie cast for this great novel. Too bad it’s black and white; I’d love to see Bogart in a powder-blue suit.
And what is the Big Sleep referred to in the book’s title? In Chandler’s words:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
Ironic words, Chandler died nearly broke without a will and was buried by the County of San Diego in Mount Hope Cemetery. His wishes were that his body be cremated and placed next to his long time girl friend Cissy in Cypress View Mausoleum, but “What did it matter”.
It is good to get reacquainted with the detective classics.
Day 18: The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler) (1939).