Just over a year ago, I had never read any Raymond Chandler, largely on the basis that he was just another crime author. Then a friend recommended The Long Good-bye to me, and I had my prejudices thoroughly shamed by this staggering masterpiece. After that I got through, with almost as much pleasure, Farewell, My Lovely and The Lady in the Lake. Now I decided to go back to the beginning with Chandler’s 1939 debut, The Big Sleep, a book as famous for the film it spawned as for its own qualities.
From the start (though he was over 50 when it was published, so hardly an immature new author), the book displays Chandler’s beautifully wrought language. The expectation is that this consists of mere wisecracks, but even the jokes are usually rather richer than one-offs about blondes to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two storeys high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree who didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
There is the obvious humour here, the sly lewdness which portrays Chandler’s narrator Philip Marlowe as a certain type of man; but there is subtlety too, and the best elements are those which control the colour rather than the volume – the visor raised “to be sociable,” the lovely wry coda.
But as well as the humour there is an absorbing sense of place and atmosphere which Chandler achieves in part by soaking the whole place – we’re in Hollywood, California – in unaccustomed rain. We open in “mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the foothills.” Later the foothills are “darkening. It was going to rain soon. There was pressure in the air already.” When it breaks, it breaks beautifully:
Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the pavement. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun-barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places. … It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street. … Sodden trees dripped all over the landscape.
There is a poetry in the prose that is entirely unexpected unless – well, unless you’ve already read Chandler. A mind that can conjure the image of “thinning fog [that] curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness,” one might think is fit for better things than detective stories. But the mystery element suits itself well to Chandler’s extraordinary linguistic skills: it affords him all sorts of darkness to control and conquer, and reflects a distrust in human nature which drips through Marlowe like the ever-present rain.
Despite the assured writing, there are elements which mark the book out, while not remotely unformed, as less complete than the later books (and The Long Good-bye in particular). Marlowe exhibits unusual violence; he has a hardness toward women which makes him seem more like a traditional hard-boiled private eye than the nuanced character he was to become; and there’s a half-hearted tendency toward what we would now call homophobia, with fairy, fag and pansy dropping easily from Marlowe’s lips.
Of the plot I have said nothing so far, not just to avoid spoiling it, but also because I didn’t precisely follow it all the way through. But then who ever has? It’s well recorded that when scripting the film, William Faulkner contacted Chandler to ask how a certain character died, and Chandler discovered that he didn’t know either. It did seem to me that a fairly complete and comprehensible story ended around halfway through the book, and everything after that muddied things, perhaps deliberately. But plot is not the reason for reading Chandler: it’s the words, the weather, the deftly drawn characters, and the setting of the city, a city where “mustard-coloured” buildings house seedy tenants: “painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die.”