The Big Sleep

I need to read more Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep cover

Two weeks ago I went away with my wife for a weekend at a nearby bed-and-breakfast, and I took along a copy of Carver’s The Big Sleep that I had picked up from a friend. I knew Carver only by reputation, as a sort of godfather of the mystery genre, someone that many people spoke highly of. I had heard the name Philip Marlowe, and I had the vague impression that his books all took place in smoky film noir settings full of sultry dames, bootleggers, wise guys with pistols tucked into their pants, and dirty cops.

These things all turned out to be true.

However, The Big Sleep wasn’t nearly as pulpy as I expected it to be, nor as pulpy as my summary above might suggest. Chandler wasn’t much for spectacle, and he plays down the more lurid aspects of his work rather than playing them up for titillation. What I expected the least, though, was how brisk and exacting the prose was. Chandler’s style eschews florid detail and "literary" ostentation, and instead lays out his scenes and arranges his words with crisp, punchy directness. Take the opening paragraph:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

I love this line: I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. Here we’ve got setting, tone, character, and the first note of the plot, all in just a few sentences. The presentation of the first-person protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, is especially deft. We get no direct characterization of Marlowe at all, and no expansive inner monologues or deep explorations of his inner life. But this doesn’t mean that Marlowe is a cipher; on the contrary, by the end of the book you know him very well, but you know him by virtue of his actions and, more importantly, by observing the world through his eyes, noticing what he notices, and feeling the effect of the words he chooses to describe it. This is marvellously effective. The plot never slows down to reveal the characters, yet we never have to wonder about who the characters are.

The plot construction, too, is excellent, especially in the opening chapters. We get a series of questions, and then a trickle of answers, each of which brings with it new questions. There is a constant sense of progress, but never a plateau or a moment where there is nothing to keep driving us forward. By chapters:

  1. Q: Why is General Sternwood hiring Marlowe? Q: What is up with his daughter Carmen?
  2. A: Sternwood is being blackmailed by A.G. Geiger, who claims to have information about Carmen. Q: What does Geiger know?
  3. Q: What is up with Victoria Sternwood? Q: What does Rusty Regan have to do with all this?
  4. Q: What sort of business is Geiger really running out of his "bookstore"?
  5. A: Geiger lends pornographic books. Q: What’s the connection to Carmen?
  6. Q: Who killed Geiger? And what does it mean for the Sternwood?

Chapter 6 is where things really pick up, as the sleepy little blackmail case suddenly becomes a murder case, and solving the murder requires Marlowe to untangle the rest of the questions posed in those first six chapters, as well as other questions posed thereafter. Then, about halfway through, things seem to wrap up… but following the last few loose ends (including things foreshadowed in those very first chapters) leads to another, deeper layer of mystery whose resolution is more difficult and more chilling.

The internets tell me that this was Chandler’s first Marlowe book, but that it was stitched together from previously published short stories. Knowing the book’s hybrid nature, one can make out some seams here and there, but overall this is a remarkably coherent and remarkably good early novel. I’ll be coming back to Chandler.

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