Friday, April 29, 2011

Adventure classics -- Murder most American

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler
How things changed in the ten years that lay between the advent of Sam Spade and the other great fictional detective he inspired – Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow.  Both as tough as boiled-dry eggs.  But consider the difference between the detailed physical description of Spade and Marlow’s self-description in the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep.  Marlow first lists his clothing as obsessively as Spade did for suspects he intended to shadow.  Then he followed the list with, “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” packing a volume’s worth of bravado and vulnerability -- and the character’s self-awareness of them – into a single sentence.

This kind of style -- full of overtones, echoes, images – sets Chandler’s work apart from the books of Hammett, who he otherwise admired.

As Chandler wrote in a letter to fellow mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner, “When a book, any sort of book reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature.  That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things.  It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.”

The notion of Chandler’s control over the story movement of The Big Sleep, at least, is problematic.  The plot is so complex that the screenwriters for the movie were reported to be unsure whether one of the characters had been murdered or committed suicide.  As Chandler told a friend later, “They sent me a wire. . . asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.”

But unusually for a mystery, the plot takes second place behind the words, so that film critic Roger Ebert praised the 1946 movie version for “exactly reproduc(ing) Chandler’s ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares.”

Chandler’s obsession with style could give rise to “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep. . . not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”

It could also descend to pulpy extremes.  At a memorial service this past Valentine’s Day to bury the ashes of Chandler’s wife Cissy in his grave, actor Powers Booth, who played Marlow in a TV series, read some favorite quotations.  The most wince-worthy example?  Probably “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on an angel food cake.”  But what could that matter to Chandler, sleeping the big sleep, sleeping it at last next to the woman he loved?

(Next month we time travel by way of historical fiction, opening with Mary Renault’s The King Must Die.)

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