Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep, and Raymond Chandler novels in general, have been on my vague, ever-growing, never-committed-to-paper "to read" list for years; it wasn't until I watched HBO's modern-day detective story-satire Bored to Death that I was inspired enough to actually pick up a couple of Chandler's Phillip Marlowe novels at a used bookstore and check them out.

In The Big Sleep, General Sternwood, a wealthy retiree with two beautiful, party-animal daughters whose social lives have exposed the family to blackmail. Sternwood hires Marlowe to find the blackmailer and investigate how his daughters had been put into an incriminating position in the first place. Marlowe's investigation leads him to a reputable bookstore fronting for a high-class pornography business, and, later, makes him an unwitting witness to a murder. This being a detective story, the blackmail and the murder are related, though in a more complicated way than it would first seem. Its difficult to summarize much more of the plot without filling this review with spoilers, but the complicated plot centers on Marlowe investigating how the blackmail is connected to the murder, and helping law enforcement solve the murder without exposing his clients to any further risk.

The Big Sleep, along with Chandler's other novels, invented many of the detective-story cliches that are still used today: world-weary, cynical, first-person narration, byzantine plots with lots of characters, rainy nights in otherwise-sunny Los Angeles, femme fatales, smartass retorts in the face of imminent violence, world-weary cynicism, jargon-heavy dialogue, blunt descriptions of assaults and murders, and lots of stylized, dated slang (in which detectives are "gumshoes," "dicks" or "snoops"; women are often "dames" or broads"; and guns have too many euphamisms to list. It may be difficult to get over these cliches, because we are familiar with them from black-and-white films noir, Chinatown, James Ellroy novels, and even "Tracer Bullet," one of Calvin's many alter egos from Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, but that is, ultimately, the reader's problem, not Chandler's problem. Chandler's novels exist; they haven't changed since the 1930's. Pop culture has changed around his novels, and it should be to his novels' credit that so many other writers and directors have borrowed liberally from them. Once you get accustomed to the rhythms of Chandler's storytelling, and to Marlowe's voice, you forget that you've already seen much of this in one form or another and get caught up in the plot, and the dated-ness comes to seem like a big part of the fun, instead of an obstacle. Lest we forget, these cliches became cliches for a reason: they are very cool. How can you not enjoy a metaphor like, "the General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings," or "her hand was small and had shape, not the usual bony garden tool you see on women nowadays?" Impressively, Chandler seems to recognize how over-the-top his writing style can get, and even pokes fun at it from time to time, such as when Marlowe says that a woman had "a smooth silvery voice that matched her hair. It had a tiny tinkle in it, like bells in a doll's house. I thought that was silly as soon as I thought of it."

I recommend The Big Sleep as a novel, even to people who do not normally enjoy detective fiction or film noir. It is perhaps the best example of one of America's most distinctive and iconic literary genres, and Chandler's voice is difficult to get out of your head in the best possible way.


Senor Beavis said...

You're absolutely right. When I had in the back of my head that it was novel when he wrote it and that all the hacks were copying him, it increased my appreciation tenfold. I like Chandler better than Dashiell Hammett, but flip a coin.

I just put Bored to Death on my Netflix queue, but I detest Jason Schwartzman, so we'll see. He just seems like such a smug prick, both onscreen and in interviews.

Wade Garrett said...

Bored to Death is a fun show. Not great, but a good way to pass the time. I'm partial to it because of its fantastic Brooklyn scenery; it is clearly the work of somebody who knows and loves Brooklyn, not just a producer picking it because its a 'cool' place where a lot of young people live. I thought that the first season was amusing, but didn't have much in the way of plots; season two apparently has better storytelling.