‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep....’
A Cast of Characters
Philip Marlowe is a private detective engaged by the ageing millionaire General Sherwood to investigate a blackmail attempt against one of his wayward daughters. Along the way Marlowe encounters petty crooks, thugs, murderers and pornographers. I won’t go into it any more than that, only to say that the plot is quite complex, though in an enjoyable way. But with Chandler, it’s all about the characters and the dialogue.
The whole story is told through the seen-it-all, world-weary eyes of Marlowe. In the hands of a less skilful writer this first-person view can limit the insights of a character. And indeed, Marlowe is quick to sum up the sordid cast of characters he meets:
Here is Marlowe describing the old man Sherwood:
‘A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock’.
It’s an easy enough image of an old man, the words ‘clung’ and ‘fighting’ fits the tenacity of his character, holding onto life as he is.
Or his description of the suave casino boss Eddie Mars:
‘He looked hard, not the hardness of the tough guy. More like the hardness of a well-weathered horseman.’
Marlowe better be careful around this guy.
He is less charitable with minor players:
‘Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a great deal of domed brown forehead that might at a carless glance have seemed a dwelling place for brains.’
‘He had tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard, and looked as hard as oysters on the half shell’.
Just from this we know that Marlowe is going to come out on top in his interactions with these characters.
But it is precisely this economy of his descriptions and matter-of-fact judgements which give weight to them. If Marlowe describes a petty criminal as having ‘sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat’ you can bet he’s a nasty piece of work.
Part of Marlowe’s appeal is that he is not above turning this honesty upon himself:
‘The smart thing for me to do was to take another drink and forget the whole mess. That being the obviously smart thing to do, I called Eddie Mars and told him I was coming down that evening to talk to him. That was how smart I was’.
The Big Sleep is justifiably famous for its dialogue. Today we would call it banter: quick, witty, penetrating. Occasionally it can veer towards corny, like a Hollywood gangster movie. Chandler even seems to acknowledge this:
‘His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that.’
But the wisecracks serve a greater function: words are weapons. The dialogue is a verbal sparring for characters to size each other up. Whilst guns are pulled from overcoat pockets as casually as a packet of cigarettes, they are used only as a last resort, an exclamation point to end the conversation. There seems to be a respect for winning with words:
‘You didn’t ever get socked in the kisser, did you? The gaunt man asked me briefly.
‘Not by anybody your weight.’
However, Chandler is not all about tough-guy dialogue. His economic style at times lends it some real poetry:
‘Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.’
‘We went out on the pier, into a loud fish smell which one night’s hard rain hadn’t even dented’.
A ‘loud’ smell is great. ‘Dented’ gives the smell a physical presence.
‘A service station glaring with wasted light’.
Again though, Chandler seems to acknowledge the fine line between art and credibility:
‘Then she laughed. It was almost a racking laugh. It shook her as the wind shakes a tree. I thought there was puzzlement in it, not exactly surprise, but as if a new idea had been added to something already known and it didn’t fit. Then I thought that was too much to get out of a laugh.’
It's a knowing line, seeming to echo the thoughts of the reader: Really Mr. Chandler? Can you really interpret all of that out of a laugh? No, he seems to concede, but it was worth a try.
‘It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain liker a swung curtain of crystal beads’.
This is L.A, but not the one you’re familiar with from movies. For a start, it rains in this L.A. Rain is almost a character in itself: It adds an extra dimension to the world. Perhaps the rain could be read as a cleansing metaphor against the filth that Marlowe is encountering.
‘The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness’.
‘It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street.’
‘The light hit pencils of rain and made silver wires of them.’
Would you want to go out in that? Neither does Marlowe.
‘I came out of there with my raincoat collar up and my hat brim low and the raindrops tapping icily at my face in between.’
Here the rain reinforces our classic image of the detective.
‘You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick’.
The focus on tough guys is balanced by the regular presence of women, though like the men in Marlowe’s world, the women are also of a type:
‘She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air’.
The story wastes no time getting into things and gradually ratchets up in complexity to a satisfying end. Like the best dramas, the plot is complex enough so that you feel like you are just keeping up. I’ve read it three times now and I still struggle to work it out. But that’s okay, because the wonderful cast of characters and dialogue can be understood and appreciated by anyone. Think of it in terms of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
There is a famous movie adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but for me Bogart is not Marlowe. Much closer is Harrison Ford’s Deckard from Blade Runner, which famously transfers the world-weary detective into a future L.A. And it rains a lot there, too.