The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep is credited with being one of the original "hard-boiled" mystery novels. Not having read anything in this genre before, and few mystery novels at all, I'm not equipped to draw parallels between in and the works it inspired or departed from. However, as a stand alone work, it was a pleasant and suspenseful read. I would give it a moderate '+', suggesting it to anyone who is looking for a decently written diversion.
The book begins when a private detective, Marlowe, is hired by an ailing millionaire to investigate a blackmail attempt against him - one that implicates his youngest of two daughters. We also meet these two women: the younger is vapid, flirtatious, and used to being able to wrap men around her fingertips; the elder is a typical ice-queen who is convinced Marlowe was hired to find her missing husband, a bootlegger of whom her father was fond. As the story continues, the plot lines become thicker and more tangled, as in any good mystery novel.
One big point in this book's favor is that, while there is suspense and violence, it is not a disturbing book. I tend to avoid reading mysteries before bed, but this one didn't give me nightmares at all. This is not to say that the story was not engaging; rather, because of the narrator's detachment from the actions around him, the reader was able to feel detached as well.
The resolution of the story was not, for me, predictable, but it was consistent with the story as it had been told. Not just the facts, but the motivations behind everyone's actions were believable. Marlowe succeeded where the police failed, not because he had a secret piece of information that they, and we, lacked, but because he stepped back and looked at the situation as a whole and the people involved. As he comments towards the end of the book:
"I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don't know much about cops. It's not things like that they overlook, if they overlook anything. I'm not saying they often overlook anything when they're really allowed to work. But if they do, it's apt to be something looser and vaguer..."
I love Sherlock Holmes stories, but this approach to unraveling a mystery to an audience makes for a satisfying narrative, if it lacks some of the pleasures of Doyle's tightly-designed puzzles.
Review written June 2001.
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