Private investigator Philip Marlowe is hired by an ageing general to deal with a blackmail problem, but soon after Marlowe finds the blackmailer dead and the general’s family entangled in the 1930’s Californian underworld of pornography, gambling and murder. The Big Sleep is a gripping mystery but the real pleasure lies in Marlowe’s voice. He’s the archetypal hardboiled detective, laconic and unafraid.
Time and again Marlowe finds himself stuck in a room with a tough guy holding a gun. He never blinks. Here’s how he copes with Luger-toting casino-owner Eddie Mars, who’s just walked in on Marlowe inside the house of the murdered blackmailer (Mars speaks first):
‘Convenient,’ he said. ‘The door being open. When you didn’t have a key.’
‘Yes. How come you had a key?’
‘Is that any of your business, soldier?’
‘I could make it my business.’
He smiled tightly and pushed his hat back on his grey hair. ‘And I could make your business my business.’
‘You wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.’
‘All right, bright eyes. I own this house. Geiger is my tenant. Now what do you think of that?’
‘You know such lovely people.'
‘I take them as they come. They come all kinds.’ He glanced down at the Luger, shrugged and tucked it back under his arm.
I’ve always wondered why classic crime writing is so heavy on outlandish similes. Here’s Marlowe tied up in a remote shack where Mars’ wife is hiding out:
She brought the glass over. Bubbles rose in it like false hopes. She bent over me. Her breath was delicate as the eyes of a fawn. I gulped from the glass. She took it away from my mouth and watched some of the liquid run down my neck.
She bent over me again. Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house.
At a guess, the similes break up the tension and, like the wisecracks, tell the reader that the narrator’s keeping his cool, no matter what.
Marlowe doesn’t give much away about himself in this novel. We get no family history and few opinions, but he shows a sense of honour and flashes of sympathy as well as that toughness. I’d love to know more about him, so having waited all these years before reading The Big Sleep, I’m ordering an omnibus on Amazon straight away. In the meantime, here are Bogart and Bacall in the 1947 movie: