Okay, so it wasn’t bad. There’s lots of fistfights and shooting and dames, and our detective hero is appropriately jaded and tight-lipped. The bad guys are crazy, the women are freaks in both the streets and the sheets, and there’s a subplot involving a pornography racket. Everyone talks in 30’s-tastic slang and usually the reader has no idea what everyone keeps yelling about. It’s a violent, fast-paced, garter-snapping (the Depression equivalent of bodice-ripping, I imagine) detective thriller, and you could do a lot worse. Chandler, like his contemporary Dashiel Hammett, has a gift for gorgeous description and atmosphere, and uses it well. But I just can’t stomach giving this more than 2 stars.
Here’s my problem: while I understand that the 1930’s were a very homophobic and sexist time and that books written during that era are bound to include some stuff that makes me uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy reading a book where the hero is homophobic and misogynist. Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled detective of The Big Sleep, makes Sam Spade look like a refined, tolerant gentleman in comparison – Spade never described a room’s decor as having “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.” The homophobia was particularly irritating here, because this book and The Maltese Falcon have almost identical plot points – a gay man commits murder for his lover – but the two detectives react in vastly different ways (so no, we cannot dismiss Marlowe’s behavior as a product of his time). While Spade treated the gay man with decency, Marlowe can’t stop mocking the poor guy and calling him a queen. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
And naturally, there’s a lot misogyny, and once again Marlowe takes Spade’s general disgust with women and ups the ante considerably. Spade has pimp-slapped his share of the ladies, but never tried to assure the reader that “she didn’t mind the slap…Probably all her boy friends got around to slapping her sooner or later. I could understand how they might.” Also, all female characters in this book are loathsome and one-dimensional. There’s no Brigid O’Shaunessy, who was violent and evil and awesome; and there’s no Effie Perine, who was sassy and fun. The Big Sleep‘s idea of compelling female characters are a couple of psycho rich girls who Marlowe sneers at while rolling his eyes at their repeated attempts to sleep with him, the stupid whores.
I’ll admit, there can be certain guilty pleasure to be had from reading the perspective of such an unashamedly bigoted character. But it gets old fast, and eventually just left a bad taste in my mouth. Thank you for your time, Mr. Marlowe, but I’m casting my lot with Mr. Spade. He knows how to treat a lady.
Verdict: two out of five stars