Here is a review by way of quotation. I think it’s fair to say that The Big Sleep was the novelistic progenitor of noir, and established a tough-edged and metaphor heavy voice as the de facto narrative tone of the hardboiled genre.
It’s also a book that has got by on its style rather than its substance: but that’s not the backhanded compliment it sounds, because Chandler was a master of style. The novel has some depth (there’s a fixation with opening and closing doors that’s both visually interesting and metaphorically loaded: an opened door can be a scintillating invitation or an act of trespass and violence; in Chandler’s mind, both at once. Plus some protagonists are now firmly established genre archetypes, and it’s always nice to know where these things come from); but, let’s be honest, I read The Big Sleep to earn literary cool points – The Big Sleep being the academically acceptable face of pulp fiction.
I enjoyed it. The best way I can give a real sense of the book is with some lines; so here are some of my favourites:
Her calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem.
‘I’ll take him out’ I said ‘He’ll think a bridge fell on him.’
‘She was worth a stare. She was trouble’
She was as limp as a fresh killed rabbit.
‘Have you told me the complete story?’
‘I left out a couple of personal matters; I intend to keep leaving them out.’
‘She ain’t here.’ The voice was as stiff as a breadstick.
‘I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a scotch bottle. I don’t mind your
showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance.’
His glass eye shone brightly up at me, and was by far the most lifelike thing about him.
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
He sounded like a man who had slept well, and didn’t owe too much money.
‘Yes, I like roulette. All the Sternwoods like losing games, like roulette… and marrying men that walk out on them and riding steeplechases at fifty-eight years old and being rolled on by a jumper and crippled for life. The Sternwoods have money. All it has bought them is a rain cheque.’
‘You can call me Vivian.’
‘Thank you; Mrs Regan.’
Geiger was living with the punk I got outside in my car. I mean living with him, if you get the idea.
‘She’d make a jazzy weekend! But she’d be wearing for a steady diet.’
It was raining hard. Again. I walked into it with the heavy drops slapping my face. When one of them touched my tongue I knew that my mouth was open and the ache at the side of my jaws told me it was open wide and strained back, mimicking the rictus of death carved upon the face of Harry Jones.