Tuesday, 9 November 2021

I thought LA was a sunny place

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1) There are not far off 6000 reviews of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep on Goodreads. Can there be anything more for me to add to the pile?

I'll try to keep it brief. Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by millionaire General Sternwood to find out who's blackmailing him. The wealthy old man has two strong-willed and wayward daughters, "Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat". They both have links to crooks and gangsters, and the book follows Marlowe's investigation of this seedy underworld in Los Angeles.

Characters and setting are more important than plot in The Big Sleep. At the beginning the detective gives an account of himself to General Sternwood: "I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. I worked for Mr Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once... I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives... I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination". He takes his profession seriously tho', claiming "I don’t play at it", and he doesn't let a pretty face or shapely leg distract him.

In this first of Chandler's novels, his writing style is occasionally tiring and as monotonous as a police report. For example: "I was two blocks behind the coupĂ© before I got in the groove. I hoped Geiger was on his way home. I caught sight of him two or three times and then made him turning north into Laurel Canyon Drive". The counterpoint to this lies in his descriptions, which stud the text like precious stones: "The sunshine was as empty as a head waiter’s smile", "She brought the glass over. Bubbles rose in it like false hopes", "I went to bed full of whisky and frustration".

There's a lot of rain in the book, which surprised me since I thought LA was a sunny place. The famous opening sentence forecasts a bleak atmosphere with "the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills". Throughout the book the weather adds an unrelenting aspect to the murkiness of the underworld. Rain "filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the pavement", "slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads", "the light hit pencils of rain and made silver wires of them", and "the rain still pounded, with a remote sound, as if it was somebody else’s rain".

One final observation: on the first page, there's an entertaining description of a stained-glass panel in the Sternwood mansion, "showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree ... and he was fiddling with the knots of the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying". Is this a reference to Marlowe's relationship to women? When he returns to give his final report to the General, "the knight in the stained-glass window still wasn't getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree".

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