RAYMOND CHANDLER – The Big Sleep. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1939. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback, including Avon Murder Mystery Monthly #7, 1942; New Avon Library 38, 1943; Pocket 696, 1950; Pocket 2696, 4th printing, 1958.


Film: Warner Bros., 1946 (Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall; scw: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman; dir: Howard Hawks). Also: United Artists, 1978 (Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles; scw & dir: Michael Winner).

   Speaking of Film Adaptations of Classic Mysteries, Howard Hawks used to reminisce to interviewers about the scene in a book shop in The Big Sleep (Warner Bros., 1946) to the effect of: “I said to Bogart, ‘This scene is awfully ordinary; can’t we do something to liven it up?’ and he put on a pair of glasses and started lisping and camping it up, and it was funny, so I said, ‘Great! Let’s go with that.'”

   Which is a good story, except that the passage in Chandler’s novel is written just like that: glasses, obnoxious effeminacy and all. Granted, the scene in Chandler’s book isn’t as funny as the one in Hawks’ movie, but ’tis there and ’twill serve.


   The Big Sleep (Knopf, 1939) was another book I read in High School, but I reread it my senior year in College, and I revisit it every ten years or so since then, always finding something fresh and readable to make me glad I came back. The plot is a mess, and the quality of Chandler’s prose is sometimes strained when it should drop like the gentle rain from heaven on the place beneath, but when it works well, there’s nothing like it, and Sleep brings a colorful cast of bit players to pulp-life with energy delightful to behold.

   Again, there’s room to carp. Chandler’s handling of gay characters is hysterically unsympathetic (“… I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones whatever he looks like.”) and describing an over-decorated house, Marlowe says it “…had the stealthy nastiness of a fag party.” Well how would he know?


   And again, that’s just carping about a classic. The Big Sleep works on several levels, and offers some happy surprises along the way. I particularly liked the passage cataloguing the detritus of a shabby office building where Marlowe notes, “against a scribbled wall a pouch of ringed rubber had fallen and not been disturbed.”

   Nowadays of course, a writer would just say “used condom” and be done with it, but Chandler’s coy self-censorship offers the kind of unique charm that seems lately to have gone the way of all flesh.

   Damn. Two references to Shakespeare and one to Samuel Butler in a single review of The Big Sleep; that’s gotta set some record for pretentiousness.