Monday, May 02, 2011

Proust and 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

The Big Sleep

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the sound and value of words, and he added to it a very sharp eye for places, things, people, and the wisecracks (this out-of-date word still seems the right one) that in their tone and timing are almost always perfect."

The first novel by Raymond Chandler, who at the time was a 51-year-old former oil company executive, is a mosaic of shadows, a dark tracery of forking paths.  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. "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be." This sentence, from the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, marks the last time you can be fully confident that you know what's going on. Along then wanders his private eye, Philip Marlowe, a smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to finally read this author as part of my current class on crime and the criminal in American fiction.

A Goodreads update

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