I like to think cartoons teach us everything worth learning. How else would we know that cats hate dogs, coyotes are stupid and a secret agent mouse lives in a pillarbox in London? And there’s a cartoon character that is partly responsible for my love of the detective novel and, surprisingly, it’s Tweety Bird. Yep. Sorry about that. But the annoying yellow fluffball had one inspired incarnation and that was as a Philip Marlowe-esque P.I. It was possibly only one episode I saw repeatedly on weekday afternoon re-runs of Loony Tunes but it has always stuck in my head. So much so that it informed me of Raymond Chandler, Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of hard-boiled detectives long before I knew anything about noir crime fiction.
And so here have the letter C. For Raymond Chandler and his classic noir detective novel, The Big Sleep.
The thing with a writer like Chandler and his intertextual popularity, is that he is one of those authors I’d always felt I had read when, in fact, I hadn’t. I once had someone say to me, ‘I don’t think I’ve read any Austen,’ and I wanted to reply, ‘Hell, if you can’t remember, you illiterate moron…’ But I was a bit like that with Chandler. I could wing my way through long conversations about him, sounding totally informed and being totally fraudulent. And Tweety Bird is to blame for some of that.
But now I have finally read some! And it’s the stuff goddamn dreams are made of, sweetheart. So what is it about his writing which is so deliciously detectively delightful?
Chandler’s use of language is imaginative, specific and stupendous. I adore slang and informal language. I love that it’s always changing, it’s egalitarian nature and that it can be so particular to certain people, places or eras. It is colourful, expressive and can be intricately precise in its definition and use. When I started reading The Big Sleep I began to dog-ear pages with the most exquisite one-liners and descriptions on them until I feared I would find myself with a book resembling a Crufts catalogue and so desisted. But trust me, nearly every page contains some gem of literary usage of the English language, and what is great about Chandler is he was one of the first (and one of the best) to use it in this way. And just because his prose reads a bit free and easy and isn’t stiffly formal, he is an extremely considered wordsmith and every single word is working very, very hard, and to me, that’s the sign of a classy writer.
Dames, joes, broads, grifters, cops on the take, criminals on the make – there are no innocent bystanders in this novel, our protagonist Marlowe included. Marlowe is a fascinating character – the down and out gumshoe with the bottle of whisky in his filing cabinet, the man men either want to trust or kill, that women want to throw themselves at or slap silly. The P.I. who wants to do right by his clients, even if that means doing wrong. A man who plays his cards close to his chest, who doesn’t mind resorting to the rough stuff to get the information he needs. I could go on and he would still sound like a lone-wolf, hard-drinking, no-friends, down-and-out, heart-in-the-right-place, wise-cracking, trenchcoat-wearing stereotype, except that we must remember that the stereotype largely comes from Marlowe and for that we can revel in its magnificence.
The Big Sleep is a reflection of the time it was written and the time it is set, but it is also a novel with a strong sense of place. As a reader I felt I was among the action. Just little old me, standing in a corner of a room or slumped in the back seat of a car, perhaps trying to hide behind that cop with the big arse at a crime scene. When you read this novel you are on the streets of LA, you drive along the California coast, you sit in a diner with your coffee and eggs, you stand amongst the fog and squall of an incoming storm. And you do it all in the 1930s which is why the language is so engaging, why the little details of dress, furniture or driving a car are so interesting, why you let the chauvinistic behaviour wash over you (or perhaps raise a wry eyebrow and then continue reading). Often when we get that strong sense of place in novels it is when the setting is in a small community or perhaps in a country we see as exotic. I love that this sense is so strong in a story set in an American city, in the type of story where you think you should just be focusing on the plot and who did what to whom.
Lastly, I love that I have finally actually read Raymond Chandler and met his Philip Marlowe before he was Humphrey Bogart. And I can’t wait to read more.