Last week I was browsing in my favourite bookshop and I found the Penguin Edition of The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.
I’d recently seen the classic movie adaption with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and loved it (disclosure – I have a huge crush on Humphrey Bogart.) Bogie’s habit of muttering dialogue out of the side of his mouth made him a natural fit for Philip Marlowe, the original hard-boiled detective. As usual, Bacall smouldered and cracked one-liners like a whip. The plot twisted and turned to the point where I started to lose track of who had killed whom and why, and it was all wrapped up in a stylish black-and-white package.
The book too is hugely entertaining. If the movie’s in black and white, the book is drawn in lurid colour, showing Chandler’s origins as a pulp writer. I knew about the snappy dialogue, but the vivid descriptions have been an unexpected treat. My favourite so far - “...she lowered her eyelashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain." Occasionally he goes a little too far (there’s some frothing at the mouth and drooling, for example) but on the whole the book contains some of the punchiest descriptions I’ve read.
I’m also having fun playing spot-the-difference between the book and the movie. The book certainly contains a whole lot more naked women – obviously couldn’t show those on screen in 1946. This actually necessitates a reworking of the plot, as originally there was blackmail relating to naked photographs. Geiger’s business of selling pornographic books is also skated vaguely over in the film. Despite this, Marlowe is more of a lady-killer in the film, having a surprisingly sexy encounter with a bookstore clerk while out conducting surveillance. Must be that Bogie effect.
The book is of course a product of its time as well, and occasionally made me wince with its stereotypes and references to ‘fags’ and ‘queers.’ While some of this was mercifully left out of the film, it does help explain some of the more obscure plot details. Even Chandler apparently lost track of the plot at one point and neglected to provide an explanation of who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur. He would later tell a friend "[The film producers] sent me a wire ... asking me, and dammit I didn't know either".
If you don’t mind a bit of pulp with your crime, I’d recommend this book as a great read and the movie as a great classic. Now if you’ll excuse me, Bogie – er, Marlowe – is waiting for me and I’m only halfway through…