Title: The Big Sleep
Author: Raymond Chandler
What it's about: Private investigator Philip Marlowe is on a case. He's supposed to investigate the blackmailing of the daughter of General Sternwood, an old man with two daughters. It's a simple enough matter. Tail the fellow who's doing the blackmailing and then advise the general about whether to pay up or take other action. But things get a little tricky when the suspect gets murdered and one of the Sternwood daughters shows up on the scene.
What I thought: Ah, now this is a mystery! It's everything you could want in a detective novel. There's a hard-boiled protagonist, mysterious dames, crime lords, menacing henchmen, plenty of cigarette smoking and consumption of liquor, the works. But it's not flat. Marlowe is unexpectedly deep, and honorable, too. Unlike Sam Spade, who I always though of as rather a jerk, Marlowe is philosophical and principled. He's loyal to his client, works with the law as best as he can without compromising the client, doesn't pack heat unless it's necessary, things like that. The review on the back of the book called Marlow a "slumming angel," which I find an immensely poetic and accurate description of his character. The California of The Big Sleep is depicted in shadowed words, as a fallen place. Marlowe presents a principled figure beaten down by the shady circumstances which surround him. Ah, but I digress. On the subject of the mystery itself, it's well constructed, with a convoluted plot that nonetheless works itself out in its beautifully depressing ending.
Overall: An archetypal detective novel that's a classic and a must-read.