Monday, September 1, 2008

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana

The definition of originality has been said to be, not that you create something new, but that you create something that cannot be imitated. Raymond Chandler did this when he wrote his four Philip Marlowe detective novels, beginning with The Big Sleep (1939). Here we meet Marlowe, the solitary, hard-drinking, tough-talking private eye working the seamier side of Los Angeles, solving crimes two or three steps ahead of the police (and the reader), and fending off crazed blondes with calm professionalism as he goes. What starts out as a case of blackmail quickly balloons into several interlocking cases involving porn, gambling, missing persons, and of course, murder. All of this takes place in a decidedly un-glamorous and strangely unpeopled L.A., full only of shabby office buildings, anonymous mom and pop diners, and plain frame houses amid drifting Pacific fogs. It rains perpetually.

There are great lines in the book -- "you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes," a voice was "as false as an usherette's eyelashes" -- and the mystery is mostly beautifully paced. But Marlowe, and Chandler's whole style, have become so iconic that it is hard to appreciate how original it all may have been. True novelty may be impossible to imitate, but it can be parodied (Steve Martin's film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid comes to mind), and when it comes to lines about an usherette's eyelashes, it's hard not to find this beginning to be unintentionally funny. Marlowe himself, with his deadpan, I-shoulda-known-better narration, actually began to remind me of Bertie Wooster, the cheery, bewildered twit of P.G. Wodehouse's comic Jeeves and Wooster novels. There is little difference in tone between: "I was in the bathroom, wondering what there was going to be for breakfast while I massaged the spine with a rough towel" (Wooster) and "If you have anything that's worrying you beyond endurance, drop up ... I'll be oiling my machine gun" (Marlowe). Since both characters date from the same era, it may be that the slang of the time accounts for superficial resemblances between them. Gals "leg it," a detective is a "peeper," and when things are good they're "jakeloo." It is a bit distracting.

The question is, can anybody read The Big Sleep with pure delight today, just as a great tale? I found the solution to the mystery disappointing -- Chandler seems to have been known for messy plots, including totally unvisited subsidiary murders right in the middle of things -- and I doubt I will move on after this to Farewell, My Lovely, or the other two novels in this particular omnibus collection. It is all a piece of Americana, certainly, but as such has a kind of stale museum air to it that is, in the long run, uninviting. Maybe Chandler was original to a fault. He can be parodied, but not imitated and maybe not surpassed -- but, after one dose, he also can't be much further explored.

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