Raymond Chandler has been my favorite writer of crime fiction most of my life, but I had only seen his work dramatized by Humphrey Bogart and other actors, Bogey being my favorite Philip Marlowe. I decided to check out the writing this time around and The Big Sleep seemed like the right one. I expected hard boiled and got an interesting introspective view from what is essentially a down at the heels private investigator.
Marlowe is asked to General Sternwood's home to discuss getting his youngest daughter Carmen out of a jam. She has signed some IOUs for a lot of money and the man wants to be paid. Marlowe suggests looking into the situation closer and deciding whether or not the debt (or rather blackmail money) should be paid, and he thinks the general should ignore the markers.
During the conversation, the ailing millionaire talks about his son-in-law, Rusty Regan, and how much he misses him since he walked out on his elder daughter, Vivian. He knows Regan was a bootlegger, but a good man who wasn't just after his daughter's -- or rather his -- money and he spent a lot of time talking with the general. What Carmen and Vivian want to know is if Marlowe was hired to find Regan. He tells both women, and everyone else who seems to think that's the only reason Sternwood would hire him, that he was hired to handle another matter. No one seems to believe Marlowe.
Marlowe finds Carmen naked with a dead man on the floor and steps in to handle things. When he returns to the house, the body is gone, as is the film and camera that shot pictures of Carmen while drugged and naked. Things get more interesting from that point on.
Chandler creates a believable situation with dangerous rip tides and under currents that Marlowe manages pretty well. Marlowe is always a few steps ahead of the bad guys -- and gals -- and able to adapt to all situations. What is so surprising about Chandler's writing is how he gives each character and the story such depth and complexity. The writing verges on poetic and the situations as real as the morning newspaper. Chandler demonstrates the relationship between police and criminals and how Marlowe fits seamlessly into the mix without giving up his principles. The women are dangerous and unpredictable and Marlowe handles them with experience and dispatch. He is ready for anything.
The Big Sleep refers to the big sleep that all of us must take in the end, whether it is with a bullet or the slow embrace that comes with old age and infirmity. What Raymond Chandler offers is a class act that has aged well and is quite potent and still potable.