Thursday, December 4, 2008
The Reading List: "The Big Sleep"
I grew up reading hard-boiled detective novels, especially John D. McDonald’s so-so Travis McGee series and Robert Parker’s actually-pretty-decent Spenser novels. But I had never gone back to the author generally considered the granddaddy of the hard-boiled genre, Raymond Chandler, and his detective character Philip Marlowe. (Those of you who are shouting “Dashell Hammett”: remember, most folks have two grandfathers. I believe Hammett made The Reading List too, so he’ll get equal time eventually.)
This genre-defining stature has helped Chandler acquire a patina of Real Literary Merit. This is a detective novel that they might make you read in school. Knowing this, I was initially really bothered by its prose style. It struck me as employing way too many simple declarative descriptive sentences, often to describe rooms and wardrobes in unnecessary detail. As I got used to the style, however, I realized that Chandler was doing a pretty good job of mimicking what I imagine as a good private detective’s thought process, a constant lookout for telling details in the world around him. Whether this was the result of careful craftsmanship, or whether Chandler’s genre just happened to line up nicely with his naturally simple writing style, I’ll leave to his biographers.
Book and Movie
The novel version of The Big Sleep is of course the basis of the very fabulous movie version of The Big Sleep (reviewed here). One of the best things about that film is the snappy dialogue, and it turns out that much of the dialog is lifted whole cloth from the novel. It is just as good in the book as it is in the movie, and of course there is a whole lot more of it. Top-notch wisecracking abounds.
The film version of The Big Sleep offers a fairly straight-forward love story against the backdrop of a completely indecipherable detective story. This is, it turns out, because the movie script adheres faithfully, even doggedly, to the plot of the novel, but leaves out any content that couldn’t go into a mass-market movie in the 1940s. And, since the plot revolves around a pornography racket and involves characters who are gay, indiscriminately promiscuous, and/or frequently showing up in their birthday suits, the plot is in tatters after you do the requisite bowdlerization.
To make the movie version coherent, the script was written to play up the relationship between Marlowe, the detective, and his client’s daughter. You know – the famous Bogart-Bacall pairing, really one of the highest-octane instances of barely-suppressed sexuality in the history of film. Fans of the movie will be surprised, then, to find that in the book, that relationship is a dead letter. Marlowe isn’t a bit interested in “Mrs. Regan.” The only woman that the book-version Marlowe takes anything of a shine to is someone he meets only once and knows he will never meet again. Chandler is a shrewd enough observer of human nature that this is surely not by chance; Marlowe’s personality is such that he is going to be much more comfortable with a relationship in which there is no risk of reciprocation.
The most unpleasant thing about The Big Sleep -- worse even than Chandler’s use of the word “modernistic” instead of “modern” -- is a homophobia with a nasty mean streak to it. There are occasional bursts of uncomfortable misogyny as well, but these are not too hard to recognize as merely typical of the era when Chandler was writing. His gay-bashing goes beyond period norms and pops up here and there with no provocation. Of a room’s decor, at one point, we are told out of the blue that “all this in the daytime had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.” There’s no particular reason to suppose that Chandler thought it deepened the character of Marlowe to give him issues around homosexuality, so it would appear that it was Chandler himself who had the issues.
Plot: Well, it’s pretty complicated and there’s no reason to walk you all the way through the case. The gist is something like this: the tough guy private eye Marlowe is hired to defuse a blackmail case. Soon he has tracked his client’s daughter into a pornography ring, and before long the plot is littered with corpses. Driven by a sense of professional honor, Marlowe keeps digging even after the blackmailer has been neutralized. He winds up in a jam, but escapes by his wits. At the end of the story, everyone is a little older but not necessarily wiser.
There’s a bit of the Myth of Sisyphus in the hardboiled hero; he strives eternally, yet does not expect or really hope to make the world better by his efforts. At best, he is fending off the forces of chaos for another day. This downbeat sensibility saturates The Big Sleep. What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? asks Chandler at the end of the novel. In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.