The Big Sleep
Literary, crime, mystery
Approx. 72,000 words
Best of the genre
My comments upon first reading Raymond Chandler's famous detective story, The Big Sleep, were all about how sparse and direct his prose was. Just the facts. Plain, chiselled sentences à la Hemingway and Hammett.
Maybe too plain and chiselled. I griped a bit about overall flatness. The narrator, Philip Marlowe (surnamed after the Elizabethan playwright) reacts to everything evenly and ironically—whether he's discovering a dead body, being shot at, or flirting with a frail (a woman). His continual punchy, declarative statements, uttered in the same sardonic tone, leave us little sense of really being there.
Besides, lots of people have done plain and chiselled à la Hemingway and Hammett.
So how come I liked it so much?
Second time around, the plot of The Big Sleep seemed even more arbitrary, as if it didn't matter in the least. Despite Chandler's stated aim to drag mystery writing into the realm of realism, I could not really believe his characters were real people who existed and interacted as he had them doing. Not that they were outlandish. Just melodramatic in a way that might not have been noticeable back in 1939 when this book was a welcome breath of stale, American, big-city air in the genre dominated by the elegant and preposterous British mystery. With other U.S. writers, Chandler got rid of the polite country-house and parsonage characters, replacing them with gangsters, gamblers, con artists and loose women. Such clever gangsters, gamblers, con artists and loose women. And engaged in more running in and out of rooms, gun shots in the dark, beatings and murders than any real investigator is likely to see in an entire career.
So why did it still seem so good?
The second time through I also noticed Chandler's writing is not always stripped down to essentials. Note the opening sentence, starting with a description of the weather—a no-no in some schools of modern writing. Chandler tends to refer to the weather rather a lot. Check out all the other non-essential info he doles out. Right down to the designs on Marlowe's socks. And then undercutting it with the reverse-sarcasm of "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it". And then the economy of "I was calling on four million dollars". Not "I was calling on a man who was worth four million dollars". There's a literary term for this substitution of a single characteristic for the whole thing, but it's the kind of very small touch that comes naturally to someone who's honed his craft to the nth degree, the kind of small touch that with a thousand other small touches adds up to one very big touch.
This is actually pretty good writing. It's not just paring down text to nothing; it's both paring down and inflating, to play off both effects against each other. It's knowing when to add that tiny, irrelevant observation and when to cut out some big stuff.
Throughout The Big Sleep he gears up and down at will—tightening the monosyllabic prose to the breaking point and then throwing out a loose line or two that you can just snuggle into. Sometimes he'll go on for a page or two, as in Marlowe's conversations with Vivian Sternwood, which advance the narrative very little. Or the PI's confrontations with the ultimately decent grifter, Harry Jones, that tell us more about both men's characters than we really need to know. Often it's a short encounter with a minor functionary. A revealing personal line from a waiter we'll never see again. Or Marlowe musing on mundane aspects of life in L.A. This is the kind of thing that Ross MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Carl Hiassen and dozens of other more recent crime writers have picked up from Chandler. The quirky bits. The narrative non-sequiturs. The poetry in the gutter. In one of those stuffy old clockwork whodunits, if a character made a seemingly odd remark, you knew it was going to turn out to be significant in some way. In the Chandler tradition, it's more likely just an odd remark of the kind you hear every now and then in real life.
As I say, lots of modern mystery writers have picked up this trick, but none have been able to blend the taut and the loose exactly the way Chandler did. (Leonard comes closest.) With most writers you're reading along and you think here's where we get the whimsical break or now we rev up to the next action episode. With Chandler, it's seamless, all one experience.
The intuitive PI
The Big Sleep of course is famous for being complicated. Unfairly famous for being complicated I think. True, there is one death (of the chauffer Owen Taylor) that is never resolved—Chandler reportedly forgot about that loose end. But the rest is straightforward. Nowhere near as complicated as any bad old Agatha Christie mystery.
In fact, Marlowe solves very little by sheer intellect. Most of what he figures comes by intuition. The last murder to be solved in the novel—the mystery's piece de resistance, springing upon the reader when least expected—is cleared up almost by accident.
But it's the journey to get to that fortuitous point that enthralls. Maybe we don't feel Marlowe really exists, maybe we know all along that we're in the realm of escapism here, but we want to ride along in this character's place. And we feel the discoveries we make along the way in this made-up world—the people, the crimes, the situations—are discoveries being made about the real world.
Now I don't want to give the wrong idea. This ain't Shakespeare. There have been plenty of mystery or crime novels written with literary pretensions and they're mostly useless. The Big Sleep definitely remains a genre publication—Chandler seems happy to work in that field without feeling the need to "rise above it". But it is among the best of that genre, the mid-twentieth-century American hardboiled detective fiction genre, just as you could say the work of the original Marlowe was among the best of the late sixteenth-century popular British dramatic genre. Good writing, in any case.