The Big Sleep
Author: Raymond Chandler
American release date: July 12, 1988
Format/Genre/Length: Novel/Crime/139 pages
Publisher/Industry Age Rating: not rated
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★
A referral from an associate in the DA’s office garners private investigator Philip Marlowe a job with the very wealthy General Sternwood. The General is elderly and infirm, living in a huge house with a discreet butler and two daughters—both born late in his life, and both rather wild girls. Where Carmen is ditzy and prone to flirtatiousness, Vivian is more self-assured and wears an air of self-possession, despite the fact that her husband, Rusty Regan, has disappeared without a word. However, that is not why the General has summoned Marlowe. There seems to be a small matter of blackmail…
General Sternwood has received some promissory notes purporting to have been signed by Carmen; a card with the name Arthur Geiger, purveyor of rare books, is enclosed. Marlowe suspects it’s an attempt to claim blackmail money, especially after he learns that the general was hit up for hush money a few months previously by a guy named Joe Brody, who wanted it in order to stop seeing Carmen. Since the General won’t ask Carmen directly, Marlowe agrees to check things out. Before he can even get out of the house, Vivian Regan requests his presence in her room, and attempts to grill him over what he’s doing for her father. But Marlowe is keeping a tight lip; he’s not one to spill the beans about his clients, even if she is the client’s daughter.
Affecting a cover as a man knowledgeable about rare books, Marlowe goes to Geiger’s book store but apparently the worthy gentleman is not on the premises, and the gal he’s hired to take care of things doesn’t know as much about rare books as perhaps she should. When she hands a wrapped parcel to a mysterious visitor in exchange for an unspecified amount of cash, Marlowe suspects there is more here than meets the eye. So he takes his leave and follows the man, giving him a distinct case of the heebie-jeebies. The nervous Nate ditches the package, and Marlowe retrieves it.
Having gotten a description of Geiger from a girl in a bookstore across the street, Marlowe cases Geiger’s place until he appears, and tails him to his house on Laverne Terrace. Night slips in as Marlowe bides his time. A sudden flash from Geiger’s home, followed by a scream and three shots, draws him in, where he discovers a naked Carmen Sternwood, and a dead Arthur Geiger. Being a discreet kind of guy, he returns the stoned heiress—properly dressed—to the bosom of her loving family, and returns to the scene of the crime, only to discover that the body is gone!
A dead chauffeur, a lending library of pornography, gambling debts, scandal and more strew Marlowe’s path as he seeks the answers to questions which only lead to more questions. Why does everyone think he’s searching for Rusty Regan? Marlowe will stop at nothing to get at the truth, including putting his own life in peril.
This is my first Raymond Chandler novel, his first Philip Marlowe, and it’s a great introduction to the PI, as well as a wonderful addition to the genre. Although written a long time ago, it definitely withstands the test of time, and is just as fascinating for modern readers as any contemporary novel. Chandler has a definite way with descriptions that give you instant pictures of what he’s talking about. For example, this description of the Sternwood home:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair.
Marlowe is a cynical observer of the human condition, and he isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Or to take a chance, even if it means putting his life on the line or getting physical. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to reading the next one, Farewell My Lovely. I recently watched the film, The Big Sleep, which I shall review separately, and compare the book to the movie.