Perhaps The Maltese Falcon, plus all the clips of black-and-white Bogart films I've seen over the years, made me think that all crime fiction would be dark and depressing. After all, Hammett's novel wasn't exactly chipper. But I wasn't even past the first page of The Big Sleep when I started chuckling. This, I thought, this is gonna be an enjoyable ride.
Let me explain by example. Philip Marlowe, narrator and private eye extraordinaire, cockily presents himself as "neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars." BAM. You can't beat a description like that. And the clocks on his socks? Wonderful touch.
It was the next paragraph that really set the tone for the whole novel, though, in several ways. First, the humor: Marlowe describes a stained-glass panel of a knight "rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." That "convenient" just killed me, because we've all seen art like that, and we've all doubted that specific wisps and locks of hair would be so "conveniently" placed to as to cover those blush-inducing body parts. But like any good writer, Chandler spins out this work of art into a complex and intricate story, at the center of which is a girl who happens to find herself wardrobe-less on several occasions. The "knight," ultimately, is Marlowe; the damsel in distress is Carmen Sternwood. It's like Chandler is laying it all out for us in the beginning, but knows that we'll need a lot more information.
What follows is a complicated tale of double-crossing, missing people who supposedly ran off but are really dead, a bookstore that peddles pornography, bribery, seduction, and a hell of a lot of dough (see, I'm getting all noir-slangy up in here now). Oh, and a young woman who has some...er...issues.
As you might have guessed, the title refers to death, but in an oddly gentle way. "Big Sleep" sounds more like getting all set to curl up for a good ol' hibernation, instead of being the recipient of a bullet. Ultimately, Chandler suggests, some things never change- the knight in the stained-glass window will forever fiddle with the ropes that tie the damsel in distress, human nature is what it is, and everyone must ultimately hunker down for the Big Sleep.