As I mentioned, I’m on a little bit of a mystery kick. (And, as noted in the last post, this comes from my mother, who asked me to not forget Dick Francis, her absolute favorite, in the pantheon of our household’s favorite mystery writers.) However, I am moving away from my traditional Agatha Christie-style “Whodunnits?” into the land of noir with the hard-boiled detective, where his (or her) process is as vital to the story as the crime itself.
Which brings me to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett, is often considered one of the fathers of the tough-talking private eye, his Phillip Marlowe character one of the prototypes, and the crime noir literary genre. His first novel is set in late 1930’s Hollywood among the rich and seedy and features a dying general and his two spoiled daughters, a purveyor of dirty books and his employees, a love-sick chauffeur, a butler who knows more than he’s letting on, and a gambling magnate and his hired guns. Marlowe is called in to investigate a potential blackmailing and ends up with multiple murders, a separate disappearance, and a night-time firefight in the rain. And, of course, leggy blondes abound.
I picked this up because Michel and some of his friends were reading it for class and completely loving it, and when the guys all love a book…well, I think I should read it, too. And, I have to say, it’s completely fun. Chandler loves his descriptions. Reading Chandler’s descriptions is like wrapping yourself up in a blanket of color, sounds, smells, tastes, and weather. They are lush yet spare, written with an impressive economy of language. Chandler seems to be in favor of using the least amount of language for the biggest punch. It’s fantastic.
Marlowe, as a character, is straight out of Central Casting…except that Chandler was instrumental in creating that archetype. He’s smart, feisty, quick on his feet, and handy with a gun. He doesn’t mince words, but his spectacular dialogue crackles with humor and wit. The part of Marlowe almost seems written for Bogey (who did, in fact, play Marlowe in the movie). Vivian Sternwood, the general’s older daughter, never can quite decide whether or not she likes Marlowe. I liked him instantly. Additionally, Chandler has a knack for the most genre-specific yet completely believable and awesome dialogue. If any of us spoke the way Marlowe and his compatriots speak, it would sound absolutely ridiculous. However, Chandler’s dialogue, soundly based in 1930’s Hollywood slang, is natural and effective within the context of its story.
Now, I’m going to be honest. This is not what you would call a politically correct novel. It is definitely a product of its times, and the way characters talk about things perceived to be “against” society, particularly homosexuality, can be jarring and even horrifying to modern readers. That being said, it is important to remember that this kind of language and thinking was not considered inappropriate or even harmful at the time by wider society. This is not to excuse those elements but to remind ourselves as readers of the reasons behind such language. Additionally, we cannot condemn a book for elements that do not conform to our modern notions of morality if it was written in a time with different values. To do so would be to give more power to that language. Rather we should recognize such derogatory language for what it is, acknowledge its negativeness, and move forward with the larger story.
Additionally, there are some holes. Who killed Owen Taylor, for example? While I feel that Marlowe has some very specific ideas, the facts are never revealed. Apparently when William Faulkner was adapting the screenplay, he asked Chandler about the identity of Taylor’s murderer. Chandler’s response? A shrug and an “I don’t know.” However, it’s this free spirited approach that makes the novel so fun, in addition to being a solidly constructed mystery (poor Taylor notwithstanding). I don’t think Chandler’s detective is for everyone. However, The Big Sleep is a classic of the crime noir genre, and Marlowe is a father of the American private eye. Chandler’s first novel is absolutely an important and engaging read for both mystery lovers and fans of American lit alike. And if you don’t fall into one of those camps, challenge yourself. Who knows? You might become a mystery fan yet!