The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Haven’t read Chandler since school. I’d forgotten how very literary he is, how artful and contrived the prose is – from the era between the wars which, after all, saw an explosion of Modernist experimentation with prose.

And that these books are essentially comedies. The way the plot serves up contrived scenes made of confrontations between extravagant characters who exchange clipped, artful dialogue remind me of no-one so much as Oscar Wilde – when I came across a character actually named Wilde in chapter 18 (Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney) I burst out laughing. Is it a deliberate reference or homage? After all, Chandler references Marcel Proust early in the book (Chapter 11). In their way, the characters and plots are as stylised, as exaggerated and mannered as anything from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Male knowingness

The text radiates post-Hemingway savoir vivre: the essence of this kind of writing is a very male attitude of total knowledge, complete knowledgeability about women, guns, booze, crime, all the tricks and cons of detectives and crooks – the way of the world – or of a certain kind of world. A world of sex, money, violence, drugs which we – as impeccably law-abiding citizens – are thrilled and entertained to enter, and with such a rock-safe chaperone as the artful first-person narrator.

Take women:

It might have annoyed Eddie but business is business, and you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes. (Ch 21)

Sure. So many stray blondes, what is a man to do. Or booze:

I unlocked my deep drawer and got out my office bottle and two pony glasses. I filled them and we drank. (Ch 11)

Obviously he has an ‘office bottle’ of booze. It isn’t even specified what type, it’s just general purpose drink whose purpose is to emphasise his manliness. Of course he has an office bottle. Of course he drinks spirits during the day. But what are pony glasses? The narrator knows. He assumes we know. His routine use of this stylised diction flatters us, assumes we know all about hooch and shamuses and gats. That we’re men of the world, too. Sure. No problem.

Or money:

First off Regan carried fifteen grand, packed it in his clothes all the time. Real money, they tell me. Not just a top card and a bunch of hay. (Ch 20)

Everyone says ‘grand’ now, so reading this doesn’t convey the thrill of the thieves’ argot it originally would have. But ‘a top card and a bunch of hay’, it takes you a moment to realise, must be entertaining jargon for a real dollar note at the top of a wad of fakes.

Since none of us are policeman, or Los Angeles policemen from 1939, none of us can know for sure how much of this was actually the way people dressed and acted and spoke back then – and how much is baroque invention.

‘Hard-boiled’ prose style

You read on the blurb and have the general impression that Chandler invented or is famous for the tough-guy hard-boiled style. And it’s true many of the sentences are ostentatiously clipped, short and understated. Especially around the sensational subjects which are the staples of ‘pulp’ writing (and, let’s face it, of most entertainment), sex and death.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn’t wearing anything else.

Death, of course, comes in many forms, all of them a combination of the grotesque and the sordid. All of them, of course, observed with the laconic, world-weary eye of the jaded detective.

Geiger was wearing Chinese slippers with thick felt soles, and his legs were in black satin pyjamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat, the front of which was mostly blood. His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most lifelike thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots I heard had missed. He was very dead. (Ch 7)

But almost immediately you realise the clipped sentences are outnumbered by the more artful and colourful sentences. In particular the wealth of deliberately outlandish and vivid similes.

Smart-ass similes

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired, and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets. (Chapter 25)

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. (Ch1)

I lit a cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat-hole. (Ch 1)

This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. (ch 2)

Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust. She put it together again slowly, as if lifting a great weight, by sheer will power. (Ch 10)

His cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring. (Ch 16)

Then her breathing began to make a rasping sound, like a small file on soft wood. (Ch 23)

The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. (Ch 26)

Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house. (Ch 28)

The pug sidled over flatfooted and felt my pockets with care. I turned around for him like a bored beauty modelling an evening gown. (Ch 13)

‘Pug’ refers to the baddy’s henchman and, as with the ‘bored beauty’, conveys ironic superiority, knowing confidence. It denotes the superiority of Marlowe over the situation, and of us, the privileged readers, also – so superior we can observe it with witty detachment. The delicious similes both heighten the comic/grotesque element of situations – and tickle the palate of the jaded reader.

But look again at that sentence and note that ‘with care’. That phrase denotes something extra, something I’ll call the ‘literary surplus’. It isn’t required by either the mechanics of the plot or the pulp injunction to amuse us with tricksy analogies. It is a real precision of imagining, conveyed with a real precision of language. It is this extra ability, which Chandler can turn on at will, which makes his work real art, real literature.

The literary surplus

I braked the car against the kerb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel.

‘and… and… and…’ a sequence of simple physical (male) acts described in chronological order with no colour whatsoever and linked only by ‘and’ was invented by Hemingway to give modern tough-guy prose a kind of Biblical simplicity and force. There is plenty of Hemingway in Chandler and he knows it. But then…

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness. (Ch 23)

The poetic, the lyrical side of Chandler’s sensibility is mostly reined in, constrained into stylised similes and tough-guy patois. But here we see it exposed and, therefore, more vulnerable.

Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a blackbird. (Ch 24)

This is repetition, but not and… and.. and repetition. This is repetition with variation of phrasing (‘…growing larger in them, creeping into them…’) which is shading a thought or perception, which takes the reader into the process of thought, her dawning thought and the narrator’s growing perception. It is very far from the definitive thing, the finished smart-arse remark, the Wildean apothegm, served up on a plate for which Chandler is famous:

His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to a corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. (Ch 25)

As the book progresses these more vulnerable poetic moments occur more often.

The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through. But not even the drenched darkness could hide the flawless lines of the orange trees wheeling away like endless spokes into the night. (Ch 27)

Wow. Marlowe comes round after being poleaxed and tied up by Canino, to find himself tended by Agnes Lozelle:

‘What time is it?’ I asked
She looked sideways at her wrist, beyond the spiral of smoke, at the edge of the grave lustre of the lamplight.

‘Grave lustre’. Or the moment when Marlowe enters the silent office to discover Harry Jones’s corpse:

A tramcar bell clanged at an almost infinite distance and the sound came buffeted by innumerable walls.

Something very 20th century, very Kafka, very urban alienation, is created with a handful of words. And yet how rich and poetic each phrase is: clanged… almost infinite distance. The microsecond lingering which reading ‘innumerable’ requires reminded me of the lushest of lush poets, Tennyson:

Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Can it be that there is poetry in this prose?

An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse. Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion. On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer. (Ch 26)

Burst-out is the kind of liberty-taking with the language which the Americans have been doing for a century or more with their much bigger population and diversity of dictions. Weak light is functional but poetic also. A stall fits a horse is a wise-guy, pulp simile. By the time I got to slit across a bunion I am pausing because there is real compassion here. Isn’t Marlowe a super-tough guy, inured to sex and death and old losers. But here an old guy on his uppers is evoking compassion. And then:

On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.

This is far from the Hemingway heritage. This reminds me of Joyce, the Joyce of Dubliners where every sentence is weighed and balanced, and the moving of one adverb creates a slightly alien, alerted meaning. ‘On the stool’ should come after the verb phrase, not before (though even in the right place it would read oddly). Placing it before makes ‘miserably’ conspicuous, foregrounds the sentiment, instead of burying it as hard-boiled is meant to, brings out the feeling, the real literary and humane feeling, which underlies everything in the book.

What an artist!

Related links

Other Raymond Chandler reviews

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