Thursday, October 04, 2012

An Unsuitable Job for a Poorly-Defined-Character-Who-is-Nonetheless-an-Interesting-Concept

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the legendary private eye Philip Marlowe is introduced (at least, in novel form), and like it not, Marlowe is one of the most important figures in the genre’s history. For that reason alone, every serious mystery fan should read The Big Sleep at least once. Whether they will enjoy the book is another matter altogether.

The plot: uhm… Marlowe goes from place to place to witness people getting gunned down, and comes across every racist homophobic sexist in the city of Los Angeles. It seems that everyone’s primary purpose in life is to make Marlowe’s existence a living hell. There’s some stuff about pornography, blackmail, and other cheerful subject matter, and an attempt is made to create a plot out of it. The attempt fails. In fact, at times the book makes you wonder whether Raymond Chandler somehow managed to defy space and time and read John Dickson Carr's The Grandest Game in the World back in the 1930s, never realizing that its summary of a hardboiled mystery was a satire, not a guide on how to write them!

Perhaps you can tell that I’m having a hard time summarising the plot of this book. It isn’t because I’m worried about spoiling anything but more because, well, the plot defies description. Raymond Chandler hastily cobbles together a few short stories, and you can tell. Plot holes abound in this disaster of a tale, but this writing technique affects more than just plot. Let’s ignore plot for now.

Characters are laughably inconsistent. Chandler converted some short stories into a novel and made similar characters into one character in a few cases. Unfortunately, this makes some characters flip-flop back and forth between two personalities. Consider the case of Vivian Regan. She is a cold, seemingly-emotionless woman in her first appearance. She then, for all intents and purposes, disappears from the story, only to re-emerge as a drunken flirtatious moron in the second act, where she asks Marlowe to kiss her for no apparent reason. When, near the end of the book, Marlowe reveals something about Vivian’s character, it makes sense for the character we saw in scene one, but not the mad gambler of part 2. Let’s take another character, General Sternwood. When we first meet him, he shows a silly tendency to be all poetic instead of talking sparingly, like a frail, perpetually ill, elderly man would. When he shows up again for a second scene, he forgets all about this character trait and talks normally.

The biggest problem might be Marlowe himself. I remember the first time I read The Big Sleep, I found him an intolerable jackass whose mission in life was to annoy everyone and be rude to as many people as possible. Upon re-reading, I discovered to my surprise that here was a character who refused to be compromised by the nastiness of the world around him, trying to do the noble thing… He’s a far stronger character than I remember, but he’s still inconsistent. At one point, he finds a naked woman in his bed (Of course! The love of my life is naked in my bed right now—she’s a computer.). What does he do? Throw her out, because he simply cannot take advantage of her. A great, perfectly noble gesture. So why in the name of the three heads of Cerberus does he practically force another woman to kiss him later on, and is perfectly willing to make out with the General’s other daughter (who is going through her own wild character swing at that time)?
Indeed, the only consistent character in the entire book is Carmen Sternwood, but that’s not a good thing. She’s so obviously nuts from her very first appearance! Right off the bat she intimates that she’s willing to take off her clothes for Marlowe, and she keeps showing up with guns, threats, etc. and finally tries to seduce Marlowe by hopping into his bed naked while he’s away. And yet it takes Marlowe forever to realize, hey, this girl isn’t quite normal, is she?

Which brings me to the plot. It’s laughable in every way. It’s positively ludicrous. First Chandler establishes that the chauffer’s death cannot be suicide, then he expects you to swallow the suicide theory? Or does he? No satisfying conclusion is ever proposed. And what about the final twist? Marlowe, apart from the obvious SYMBOLISM!!! that really should have given him a hint or two, has no reason to suspect the culprit of being the culprit. Yet he inexplicably knows they are the culprit before they try to open fire on him, and so he does something to save his life. How did he know that person was going to do something so bloody stupid? What took him so long to realize the person was rotten to the core? And can he stop describing the bloody room he’s in and just get on with it??? (It gets particularly annoying at the end, with Chandler shoehorning some pretentious ramblings on “The Big Sleep” to justify a tangential-at-best title.)

But hey, look, there’s a naked girl here! And a girl who’s more than willing to take off her clothes there! Virgins and whores, virgins and whores! This is the stuff of Frank Miller’s fantasies! Raymond Chandler’s women in this book are literally either virgins or whores. They exist only to intimate to Philip Marlowe that they’d love to help out a private dick in any way they can. This is quite simply Raymond Chandler’s wish fulfillment session, and it's every bit as ludicrous as Mike Hammer's big debut in I, The Jury: plot holes and all.

But there are some genuinely good ideas in this train wreck of a book. The best idea, despite a flawed execution, is the character of Philip Marlowe. Despite inconsistencies in character he comes across as a likeable hero. I particularly liked how, near the end, Marlowe explains why he’s performed some apparently-motiveless actions: to spare an old, dying man unnecessary pain. That struck a chord with me.

Although Chandler goes overboard on descriptions, he has some moments where the imagery he conjures up is just perfect, such as the image of a knight in a stained-glass window. And many of Marlowe’s snarky one-liners are genuinely funny. But what really struck me is that Marlowe doesn’t spout one-liners just for the sake of being a smart-ass. It gives him the advantage over his opponents as they try to figure out whether he’s bluffing them or not, and that in turn buys him time to think.

And that is as best as I can sum up The Big Sleep. It’s a flawed, flawed book with some interesting ideas that Chandler would explore better in further entries in the series. And yet, this book has such a high reputation!!! Why??? Time Magazine selected is as one of the 100 Best Novels, but the plot is silly, the characters change traits as convenient, the women are caricatures at best, and the whole thing is an incomprehensible mess. Let’s just admit it: Raymond Chandler was not perfect. Neither, for that matter, were Dickens, Poe, or Shakespeare. Can critics finally get over it and admit that “literary” authors can have an off-day and simply write something bad? Just because it’s Chandler, doesn’t mean that every word has a pre-destined literary purpose that we mere mortals can’t understand! As fascinating a figure as Raymond Chandler is, The Big Sleep is a very sub-par showing of his talents.

Notes: I have particular hatred for this book for several reasons. Its bloated reputation is the biggest reason, but a far more personal reason is that, as far as I can tell, this book started the single most annoying line a female character in these types of mysteries ever says: "You're cute." (She is trying to be coy, you see.) I hate, hate, HATE this line, which is EVERYWHERE in this book. As far as I know, when most authors use this line they're consciously emulating Chandler, even if someone else beat him to the punch.

I was forced to re-read this book for a class. Although I tried to be generous to it, I hated it when I first read it and I still hate it. I recognize its importance now and I can appreciate its historical value, but I still dislike it intensely. Farewell My Lovely is much, much better.


  1. I have to admit I don't see why this Chandler title gets the nod in so many classes over Farewell, My Lovely (unless it's the racism issue in Lovely--apparently the homophobia and misogyny in Sleep doesn't bother people). I like The High Window and The Lady in the Lake better too: interesting situations, good writing and much better plots.

  2. I suspect that film has something to do with its high reputation. People who think about the book often mean the film in its final version. (I have now seen both versions and the second, better known one is much better.)

    Isn't the girl who keeps saying you're cute off her head with drugs?

    1. Helen, as far as I know, yes, she's as high as a kite. She says "You're cute" at least 6 times and giggles at least 20 times by my count. The most annoying character I've had to put up with in a while...

  3. I think Sleep has the highest content of outre subject matter too, which may have something to do with it. And it's first.

    I think that's a good point about the film. Also once something gets "established" as THE book by an author it's hard ever to dislodge it, I believe.

    1. Well, that might have something to do with it. But when the series follows through with so many *far better* books, I don't see how it's possible for this book to have remained with such a high reputation!!! Give me the sequel any day of the week, especially considering that there's an excellent female character in LOVELY, as well as a fond reference to Dr. Thorndyke.

  4. Let me be the dissenting voice because, well, I suppose I often am! I first read this one when I was about 10 or 11 and fell in love with the language and the prose and even found parts of the plot clever (always though the way the story kept coming back to Rusty Reagan was quite well handled so that the payoff in the sense was earned). Chandler always expressed dissatisfaction with his 'cannibalising' (his word) of plots from previous short stories and the effect is smoother in FARWELL, MY LOVELY, no question. But three decades later I find the inconsistencies you mention not to be so much problematic as part of a pattern in which a desire to adhere to a less strict approach to plot in crime fiction is being used to emphasise other things. Whether you think this is achieved and whether these things are more important or not is a matter of taste. I enjoy Chandler's style tremendously and found the concluding paragraph crucial, which obviously you hated, to one's enjoyment and understaning. As you say, a highly imperfect work - but there's a big difference between that and a train wreck of a novel There are so many really awful harboiled detective novels out there, brutish, cynical and fascist with no aspiration to anything other than cheap thrillers, from the same period and this one is so much better than nearly all of them (for the humour, the scene setting alone) and in terms of aspiration and achievement that is does seem a little harsh. Not sure if Mysogyny is a fair charge to be levelled here - is Chandler eally espousing hatred of all women in THE BIG SLEEP? Never struch me that way.

    On the other hand, you hated THE LOONG GOOD-BYE even more as I recall, which is probably Chandler at his peak in terms of his skill as a prose writer. So maybe he's just not for you really, is he? My personal favourite may well be THE LITTLE SISTER, not the choice of many readers, so paybe I've got it all wrong mate!

    1. Sergio, welcome to the argument. I enjoy these because your point of view is inevitably intelligent and insightful. And you are right -- there *are* worse books out there, and this book didn't leave me disgusted like I, THE JURY. Which is why I didn't put a "Hall of Shame" tag on this post, because it introduces several excellent ideas. I just don't think it handles them well at all. It knows it's got good ideas, but then it doesn't know what to do with them.

      My problem with the 'cannibalization' approach is largely plot-related, but I noticed this time around that more was affected than just plot. Characters were wildly inconsistent with just their name remaining the same. Marlowe also flips flops between two personas, though not *as* drastically as some others. But because it's Raymond Chandler, that means all of this was really his incorporation of Celtic mythology into the detective novel -- especially the scene with Carmen naked in bed, that's highly symbolic -- and therefore, because it's supposed to be symbolic everything is absolutely perfect and how dare I criticize The Great Raymondo?

      I think misogyny is fair game here, along with homophobia and racism, but that doesn't seem to bother people as much as the racist opening to FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. Marlowe isn't saying misogyny is the way to go, but look at the women he comes across: except for the "intelligent Jewess" and the bookstore lady, he makes out with every single woman he comes across, and that scene with Carmen in his bed seems to me like nothing more than wish fulfillment/fantasy. I'm not saying Chandler *was* a misogynist but that's how the characters are portrayed here, and it's a consistent theme in Chandler that a woman is an Evil Temptress that brings about the ruin of good men.

      I personally hate this book but I can step aside and admire the ideas it proposes. I just think Chandler does much better with these ideas elsewhere, and this is the book that simply got the ball rolling.

      As for THE LONG GOODBYE: I think that review was back in my unenlightened days, when I was still getting a very skewed image of Chandler and was criticizing the book on grounds that were really somewhat unfair but which I was under the impression was fair game. I still think the first act was brilliant, but the disconnect between Act 1 and Act 2 is once more very obvious and Act 2 was very much inferior, in my humble opinion. I didn't feel like sticking around for Act 3, but I might give it another shot one of these days. But I think I'll be reading the Marlowes in order from now on.