Saturday, February 21, 2015

Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep? I'm not convinced. 

Maybe it's because mystery's not my thing. But I think there's more to it than that. 

For one, Raymond Chandler's style is almost Baroque. His sentences are overflowing with adjectives, most of them unnecessary. And my sense is he's written this way to fill the space: because without all that superfluous description, The Big Sleep would be a novella, a short story, even. But really, what's wrong with that? The Big Sleep would have been better had it been constructed as a novella: it would have packed a bigger (and more sustained) punch. As a novel, the story drags, and that's largely because of all the meaningless description: of cars, of rain, of women's stockings, of guns. In the end, it all fades away. 

And there's more: Chandler can weave a story - OK, I'll give him that. But his characters become so painfully cliched: his women are scandalous and provocative, his detectives tough and hard drinking. Maybe they were deliberately two-dimensional, and maybe that was one of Chandler's goals: to invent these types. And so maybe I'm being a little hard. That said, I couldn't relate: to all the names, to all the intricacies, to all the adverbs. This was a vision of American about which Chandler could not, in the end, convience me to care. Sure, maybe the Sternwood daughters: maybe they interested me because of their brazen sexuality (a sexuality that reminded me, actually, of characters developed years later by the Coen brothers). Otherwise, I found the book predictable, which was an odd sensation given its pretense of complexity.

Still, there's one great line in this book, and I'll tip my hat to Chandler for it: "..It seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact." Tangled woof of fact: that's tremendous!


  1. It's good to show that the emperor has no clothes every now and then. Some of the iconic novels of the past do get something like untouchable, divine status over time, but some of them (Chandler's included) deserve a less rapturous and worshipful critical eye from time to time. Still, reading Chandler gives as a great insight into his bold stylistic innovations (some successful and some not so much) in his time. And all of that babble simply means that I agree with your critique. Well done.

  2. Appreciate it, RTD. Sounds like we're on the same page with this one...

  3. One does not necessarily read Chandler for the story. There's the famous anecdote where the screenwriters of THE BIG SLEEP cabled Chandler, asking him if Owen Taylor had been murdered or committed suicide. Chandler didn't know the answer. But this hardly matters. For Chandler's language and atmosphere trumps all this. What you identify as supererogatory language (let's take a sentence such as "The written part was in a sprawling moronic handwriting with a lot of fat curlicues and circles for dots," which may fit your category) is a method of letting us know how Marlowe sees the world. Marlowe can't merely accept "sprawling moronic handwriting." As a detective, he needs to delve further, letting us know that the curlicues and the circles are what he attributes AFTER the initial assessment. That the story itself becomes secondary to this perspective is, I think, Chandler's twisted genius and why I keep returning to him. Marlowe is a natural evolution from Sherlock Holmes, but Chandler's innovations involved pushing the deduction process into the actual style itself. Great films such as THE LONG GOODBYE (which, oddly enough, I rewatched last night), THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and INHERENT VICE owe a considerable amount to Chandler, demonstrating a stylistic fluidity that transcends time and place.