This was a big year for Raymond Chandler and his fans. Billy and Ray, a show about Chandler’s writing the screenplay for Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder, opened off Broadway. A new book, The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (the pseudonym of author John Banville), carrying on the exploits of Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, was published. The real-life model for Marlowe, a PI named Samuel Marlowe, was revealed. And a libretto for an operetta, The Princess and The Pedlar, co-written by Chandler in 1917, was discovered. So it seemed like Chandler was everywhere when my book group and I set out to read The Big Sleep this past September.
Chandler is not known for his plotting, so it’s not surprising that The Big Sleep leaves some threads dangling at the end; we’re never exactly sure who killed the chauffeur, for example. (The 1946 movie version is even worse, as the three screenwriters, one of whom was William Faulkner, were clearly under instructions from the studio to stick Lauren Bacall’s character into as many scenes as possible, in order to capitalize on the public’s desire to see Bogart and Bacall together.) There is a homophobic element throughout the book as well, not an uncommon thing in hard-boiled detective fiction of that time. And Chandler’s women, with one exception, are pretty awful too.
So why is Chandler so revered? And why was The Big Sleep a finalist for the Anthony for “Best Mystery of the Twentieth Century”? (The others were Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon [see my blog posts on these two], Sayers’s Gaudy Night, and duMaurier’s Rebecca, the winner of the award.) Clearly it is his style.
The book is filled with similes that have come to be known as Chandlerisms:”The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.” “The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” There is also a lot of description of people and the clothes they wear:
“She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating… Her eyes were slate-gray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.”
The character of Marlowe is the prototype of all the sardonic, wise-cracking PIs who come after him:
” ‘Tall aren’t you?’ she said.
‘I didn’t mean to be.’ “
By coincidence, I was rereading Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace [see my blog post on this book] at the same time as I was reading The Big Sleep, and it was obvious how much Parker had learned from Chandler. Many of Marlowe’s quips, like the one above, would feel right coming out of Spenser’s mouth. Both books use the image of the knight as a symbol of the detective and his code. Indeed, the knight appears on the first page of The Big Sleep in a stained glass panel, and reappears several times, once as a chess piece (“Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights”) and near the end on the same panel as on page 1 (“The knight in the stained glass window still wasn’t getting anywhere”). Parker too is explicit about Spenser’s code of chivalry, and his girlfriend Susan often refers to him as “Galahad” or “Lancelot.”
Almost anyone who writes hard-boiled detective fiction today is compared to Chandler. And if the setting is Los Angeles, the comparison is inevitable. Of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), one critic says: “Mosley’s going to be compared with Chandler, but he has a clarity and precision that Chandler never achieved,” and another says “Easy Rawlins is cut from Philip Marlowe’s cloth, but he goes him one better.” The Los Angeles Times says of Robert Crais’s L.A. Requiem (1999): “After Chandler we had James M. Cain and after Cain there was Ross MacDonald and currently we have Robert Crais.”
So, is this a great detective novel? I don’t think so, not by today’s standards. But was it an incredibly influential book? Absolutely.