Gritty streets, fog rolling off the Pacific, rain over orange trees. It’s LA some time after Prohibition, and Philip Marlowe’s got a job to do. A job for a couple of half-crazy dames and an old man with a lot of money and a little pride.
Sooner or later, we all sleep the big sleep.
Raymond Chandler wrote his classic hits of pulp fiction in the 1930s having lost his job during the Great Depression, and people have lapped them up ever since. It’s a dangerous world of deceitful women and hard-faced men (the two kinds of people Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t understand), guns, shadowy figures in battered coats with their collars turned up, roulette being played in dilapidated old mansions and pornographic libraries being run from Main Street. Marlowe is a kind of a good man – the kind who can shoot straight.
It’s not just the gang-land plots and the seedy under-belly setting that sets Chandler’s work apart from the general flotsam of pulp fiction, however. He has a gift for a neat phrase – women with ‘enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmen’s lunch’, ‘a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in’, the old man ‘using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings’ – and sketches Marlowe’s straight talking, hard drinking ways in short, sharp sentences that don’t waste words in plots that are fairly convoluted and draw in plenty of characters who all get their face time with our hero.
The Big Sleep is such an immersive book, the setting, the language, the characters all belong together so neatly, that you do have to be in the right frame of mind for it. Best to read it, perhaps, in a dim room while it’s raining outside and huddled figures are waiting under street lights, with something amber at your elbow.
Marlowe drinks a lot of Scotch and soda in the book, and if you want to go along with him Laphroaig is always a safe bet. If, on the other hand, Scotch isn’t your thing perhaps try pairing The Big Sleep with one of the heavier white wines, something full-bodied enough that you know you’re drinking. Australian or Californian Chardonnays have the reputation of being heavier and fruitier than their European counterparts, while Chardonnay from the Montrachet region should be both dry and heavy. As anyone who keeps an eye out for cheap bottles knows, buying Chardonnay can turn into the Russian roulette of wine drinking, but these are solid starting points to try and find one you enjoy! Since dirty Hollywood is such a star of The Big Sleep, my recommendation is to show some loyalty and go for a Californian bottle.
Book: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Pair With: Laphroaig and soda, or a Californian Chardonnay