November 18, 2009

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep was chosen as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century and one of Time’s 100 Best Books (from 1923 to the present). It is the story of a wealthy, dysfunctional family living in Hollywood. General Sternwood is the father of two daughters – one is being blackmailed; the ex-husband of the other is missing. The General hires private investigator, Philip Marlowe, to deal with the blackmail threats against the wild and reckless younger daughter. Events soon lead to murder.

Over the front door of the General’s mansion is a stained-glass illustration of a knight rescuing a lady. Marlowe tells us: “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” (4). Detective Marlowe is an urban, streetwise version of the medieval chivalric knight, a ray of hope in a harsh, violent world. No one who has read a Chandler novel ever forgets him; he is one of fiction’s most superbly crafted characters.

In Chandler’s famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” he wrote,
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.
The Chandler hero’s tough stance, coarse language, and gruff attitude are his protective armour; honour and integrity are his guiding principles. Like the Hemingway protagonist, he is beaten by circumstance, yet fails to give in or give up.

What distinguishes Chandler’s fiction is his style of narration and use of language. Events are presented in a deadpan, detached, objective manner. Sentences are short and direct. The narrator uses colloquial language, understatement, witty repartee, wisecracks, and one-liners. A statement such as: “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead” is characteristic of Chandler’s style(34).

“I’m an intellectual snob,” wrote Chandler, “who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately” (MacShane 1981,158). Chandler’s unusual and unexpected similes also characterize his writing. The stalks of plants in the General’s greenhouse are “like the newly washed fingers of dead men”; the General sniffed at tobacco “like a terrier at a rathole” (9). Ross Macdonald observed that Chandler’s prose “is a highly charged blend of laconic wit and imagistic poetry set to breakneck rhythms” (1973, 18).

A dramatic and unanticipated scene ends the novel. The ensuing final paragraphs move from a close-up perspective to a panoramic overview as Marlowe contemplates the enormity of life and death. The ending, like the hero and the language, reverberates as few other mystery novels do.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: 1939; Vintage Books, 1976.

Macdonald, Ross. “The Writer as Detective Hero.” In Crime Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1973, 9-24.

MacShane, Frank. The Letters of Raymond Chandler. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.