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the big sleep

8 august 2017

The Big Sleep is one brilliant, troubled book. It is the pattern for all the first-person private-eye fiction of the last 80 years, and as such is one of the most influential novels in American literary history. There is much to dislike about it, but there's also a manic energy in its language that propels you into the Philip Marlowe series. I have a lot of other things to read over the next few months, and I have to be careful not just to drop everything and (re)read Chandler straight through.

You probably know that the plot of The Big Sleep is hard to follow, but quite a bit cleaner than its movie adaptation. Chandler is supposed to have said that when he finished writing the book, only he and God knew what was going on, and after Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner got done with the screenplay, only God knew. Well, if he didn't say it, it sounds like something Marlowe would say.

In fact The Big Sleep has a much clearer plot than any novel by Chandler's great disciple Ross Macdonald, and compared to later exercises in untrammeled noir like the epics of James Ellroy, it's positively taut. But Chandler established the structure of the private-eye novel that leads an investigator from stranger to stranger, as the story gets stranger and stranger.

He also established the tone of the self-narrating shamus. Marlowe actually says of a woman (Vivian Regan) "she was trouble" (17). He may not have been the first pulp sleuth to say that, but he barred the way for any subsequent detective to do so except in homage or parody. Marlowe keeps a bottle in his dingy office, and day-drinks his way through his cases alone. He gets $25 a day plus "a little gasoline" (113). If he were any harder-boiled he would bounce when he hits the floor.

It's impossible to avoid comparing Marlowe to Sam Spade, hero of what I think is the best American crime novel, Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon. The crucial difference is of course the narrative voice: The Maltese Falcon is in the third person. Hammett maintains a distance from Sam Spade, and can't get into his head – or rather, doesn't let Spade work rhetorically on readers to convince us that he's an OK guy. In salient ways he is not OK. Sam Spade is "mean," where Chandler demanded a hero "who is not himself mean". Marlowe isn't about the money; Spade just doesn't think the money in the Falcon case turned out to be enough. Spade admits that he cannot see women without objectifying them sexually; Marlowe would like us to think that he is higher-minded.

Spade actually sleeps with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, or whatever her name is, in The Maltese Falcon: sleeps with her, and then leaves her exhausted in bed while he goes out and ransacks her hotel room. Marlowe doesn't do that with Vivian Regan; he stops at a kiss and an acknowledgment of sex appeal. Perhaps there just isn't enough sex appeal in The Big Sleep to tempt him. He is stung, though he tries to rationalize the sting, when Carmen Sternwood (Vivian's sister) calls him "a filthy name" (157) – "worse than" son-of-a-bitch (228) – a homophobic name, clearly, though Marlowe is just as quick to express contempt for The Big Sleep's actual homosexuals. Both Marlowe and Spade are prone to homosexual panic: they see gay men as weak, easy to beat up or take guns away from, but also threats to their masculine integrity. But Spade strikes one as a straight man who's really uptight. Marlowe strikes one as having a lot of questions about himself and not wanting to learn the answers.

Both detectives were played by Humphrey Bogart in canonical films. Bogart played Spade as somewhat paranoid around the gay characters of The Maltese Falcon: Peter Lorre's Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet's Gutman, and especially Elisha Cook's Wilmer. Cook would reappear in The Big Sleep as Harry Jones, who is nominally straight, but another of the weaklings that tough private eyes like to slap around, and gangsters have no problem strongarming into drinking cyanide. The death of Harry Jones is a turning point in both novel and film versions of The Big Sleep, despite their plots being only superficially similar. In each, the nickel-plated Marlowe establishes an actual bond with a weak man, whom he goes on to avenge. Sam Spade bonds with nobody.

All told, I still think that makes The Maltese Falcon the greater novel; and Chandler, who acknowledged a great debt to Hammett, might agree. It also limited Sam Spade as a series hero. As the scene closes on (the novel) The Maltese Falcon, Spade is about to go back to his old ways with his dead partner Archer's widow, having learned nothing – or perhaps everything – about himself. But Marlowe, as we know in retrospect, will grow and change in the course of seven novels, and deepen as a character. It sounds odd to say that this makes him less of a character. But it makes him someone who needs the reader's approval; and in the tough calculus of the crime novel, the reader doesn't trust people who are anxious for approval.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. New York: Vintage/Black Lizard [Random House], 1992.