Raymond Chandler has the second most distinctive voice in fiction. (Dr. Seuss has the first.)
I’ll pretend you don’t already know everything there is to know about Chandler and his invention of mystery noir and creation of the most human detective in the genre, Philip Marlow. I’ll also assume you don’t need the full story, just enough tease to make you want to find out for yourself.
At the age of 54 the Great Depression took his job as an oil exec. (What a wasted life that would have been.) He published his first short story a year later, and his first novel 7 years after his life change.
The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep.
Yes, I’m shouting.
Writers and readers and lovers of the mystery genre will live in its shadow eternally. It is a universe unto itself.
The first paragraph annihilates all the foreshadowing of Poe (inventor of the mystery story) and Hammett (creator of Sam Spade, author of The Maltest Falcon which is the greatest mystery film ever made.)
Approach this with an open mind. Let the words be what they are and not what you expect. And hear the voice of Philip Marlowe, a man who sees the darkness around him and knows irrevocably his duty to bring light.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Try reading that aloud and not sounding like the wise-cracking tough guy from the movies. This is that guy, the original.
Look at what meaning he conveys in a paragraph full of non-meaning: a man who shares that much about his clothing is clearly a careless dresser. A man who announces he’s sober, well, if that’s news, we know one more thing about him. And a man who says he doesn’t care who knows it — this is a man who feels the weight of society’s disapproval and wishes he didn’t.
In fact, he shares precisely two facts of any value in that paragraph:
- he’s a private detective; and
- his client is wealthy.
You will never once care that it is October or that it’s a gloomy rainy day, although Chandler is brilliant at giving us enough environment to let our unconscious put us there with Marlowe. We may or may not see the black wool socks with blue clocks on them again. We will not care, either way (though Marlowe’s attire is at least a hint of the time period.)
Whether you care about mysteries or not, The Big Sleep is an important book and should be read by any writer of fiction.
I had some fun with it at my personal site.