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Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep at Eighty

Detective fiction? Let’s  start with Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, logician, historian, philanderer-philosopher (epistemology can send a girl limp) and improbable Nobel laureate for his thoughts on marriage. In October 1939 he was in his late sixties, travelling long distance the way any Earl did - first class, and by train. Though not before looking in at the station bookstore, to buy the hatful of detective yarns he took with him on any rail journey. They were his logic problems for relaxation on the move. His chin-ups for the brain. When he got out he’d leave them behind on the seat, flashed through, digested, solved.

Cozying up with Chandler

So imagine the Earl at Los Angeles Union station that year, climbing into the Super Chief ahead of a Hollywood star or three, trailing the car attendant to his sleeper. Imagine also that one of those detective yarns clamped under his arm is Raymond Chandler’s new, first, book-length mystery. Then wait to watch him cozying up with the Chandler over a pipe in the club car, and not having a clue what’s coming. You see, The Big Sleep doesn’t test high on logic.

The Super Chief scene isn’t so unlikely. The Union station had opened in May 1939. Russell had been a visiting professor at UCLA since March, and before that at Chicago, a forty-hour ride and the train’s destination. Then as now, he could change there for New York, where he went to teach after UCLA. As for The Big Sleep, it was published by Knopf that October, only weeks after Russell’s country had gone to war with Nazi Germany. Which makes the book eighty years old.

It’s even possible, assuming the 3rd Earl had been picking up his Black Mask or Dime Detective at the newsstands, that the name Chandler might have struck a chord. But it still wouldn’t have prepared him. By 1939 Chandler had worked a seven-year apprenticeship writing for the pulp magazines, absorbing the craft and getting the passages that most interested him - we’ll call them the atmospherics - routinely cut. In The Big Sleep, with a full novel at his disposal, they stayed in for the first time. And changed the face of mystery writing.

An Octogenarian Big Sleep

If an octogenarian Big Sleep is a shocking thought consider that Chandler was already fifty-one when it saw light of day. Chicago-born, but raised in Victorian London, he’d packed his interest in poetics along with a public school education and re-crossed the Atlantic before the First World War. He was in his mid-twenties by then, in need of a future, and taking the long view, his move back worked out. Chandler learned book-keeping. Went to war. Made and then unmade himself as a California oil executive (one consequence of testing seriously high on alcohol for most of a lifetime). Finally, down and out of a job in Depression-era LA, he turned to pulp writing. Not as a slumming poet, but as a man eyeing a craft he needed to learn. Once get the hang of it and the pulp magazines were paying a penny a word.

And get the hang of it he did, though it’s no surprise the pulp detective form grated on Chandler. His Belle Epoque schooling had taught him that a writer’s style was everything. Flaubert was the rage. But this was Dime Detective, 1932, and when Chandler tried writing in the atmospherics they were nixed. Not only because words cost pennies. They were costing publishers their action too.

Chandler didn’t see that as any loss. What’s more he didn’t think pulp readers would either, if ever they were shown an alternative. Unlike the 3rd Earl, most critics, and the (generally) English mystery writers of the time, he thought their refined plot lines were fripperies too. Which didn’t sit too well. The Murder in the Samovar crowd had its rules and unities for sleuthing by the book, and guarded them. Eighty years ago, when Chandler turned out the novel that shattered their commandments, they naturally gave it the chill.

Chandler’s Atmospherics

From the outset, Chandler’s novels don’t major on writing action or detailing a plot. Nor does he aim to burden a story with significance, social or otherwise. After all, if you want to change the world, you don’t set out writing gumshoe mysteries. Chandler’s atmospherics are meant to be taken on their own terms. Stand in a floodlit parking lot. Breathe the scent of a diner. Hear the aimless tramp of the Pacific or drowse at a poolside with the fast and the monied, corrupting in a California glare. The Big Sleep and the novels that follow are soaked in such atmospherics, indelible and sometimes magical. Just don’t ask what they mean. For Chandler they’re a burlesque of the hardboiled genre, shifted up a gear by the art and originality of the prose alone. He thinks it’s the only way a writer makes the grade.

Chandler's Mirror on Los Angeles

That’s Chandler being the Belle Epoque stylist, resistant to attaching any significance to art. But there’s no doubt either that his art holds up a mirror to his Los Angeles; fast industrializing and overgrowing even as he hit his writing stride. From The Big Sleep onward his burlesques parade a new-minted metropolis before the mystery reader: gaudy and brittle, decadent and nervous, nickel-plated, always grifting, skin-deep. In fact, a metropolis tailor-made for Chandler’s priorities as a writer; so fragmented and transitory that any idea of meaning would seem quaint. Its atmospheres are its sum, lurid as the paint on the passing scenery.

The irony being, of course, that since The Big Sleep first nailed them, those very atmospheres became the signifier for LA the world over. The atmospheres, it turns out, are the meaning; as much for generations who never heard of Chandler as for his enduring fans. Dammit, Raymond, was there more to you than style after all?

ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep at Eighty

Janet Roger in CrimeReads November 2019

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