Saturday, January 02, 2010

Chandler & Marlowe

"I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust"
"Who's he?" I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.
"A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn't know him."
"Tut, tut," I said. "Come into my boudoir."
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler was fifty years old when he wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep. It was an outstanding debut. In 2005, Time magazine included the novel in its 100 Best Novels published after 1923, and it deserves the praise as it is an intelligent, witty and realistic glimpse into the underside of sunny California - Los Angeles in particular. The novel opens with "rain in the foothills" and rain continues as a leit motif throughout the novel with the rain clouds never too far away. Much of the action occurs at night as well as this is a book that can best be described as classic crime "noir". Philip Marlowe, private eye, is tough and disillusioned, but sensitive when necessary and ultimately the epitome of the private detective. In his book on the history of the detective story, Mortal Consequences, author Julian Symons has this to say about Raymond Chandler:

"Chandler had a fine feeling for the sound and value of words, and he added to it a very sharp eye for places, things, people, and the wisecracks (this out-of-date word still seems the right one) that in their tone and timing are almost always perfect."

This was certainly true in The Big Sleep and it is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom experience in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom.
Chandler's imagination and creativity is astonishing as he has created a book with a complicated plot but even more complex levels of reference and meaning. The basic story takes on the trappings of Greek tragedy as Marlowe is hired by patriarchal General Sternwood, overseer of a family fortune, to handle a case of blackmail against one of his two daughters. Marlowe handles the case with efficiency, but the story does not end with the one daughter and her blackmailer. The further convolutions of plot and the suspense that builds through the interaction of a number of colorful if unlikeable characters kept me reading with interest till the end. Whether you are a fan of crime fiction or not, this is a great book to read. It is also one of the great films of all time with Bogart and Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks - check it out.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Vintage Books, New York. 1988 (1939)

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