HARDBOILED TIED IN RIBBONS
Gumshoes, Blondes and Blackmail
There are properly extended reviews of Hill, Jackson & Rizzuto’s recent The Annotated Big Sleep. You might for example try Geoff Nicholson, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. My interest isn’t nearly expert enough for that. It’s simply a fascination with the decades of the 1940s and 50s - and with the generation that came through them - that Raymond Chandler wrote about and for. His seven novels, featuring private eye Philip Marlowe, were published at intervals through those two decades, more or less. The Big Sleep, published 1939, was the first.
Habits and Prejudices
So this is not a review. Instead, it leans heavily on The Annotated Big Sleep in order to marvel at how fast the world of a novel dates. We know the past is another country. The shock is that we become expatriates so soon. The Big Sleep, after all, was published just about within living memory. Yet already we profit immensely from reading it with notes: notes on the shaping events, on the language and idiom, the manners, mannerisms, habits and prejudices of the times. Without them, there are commonplaces that go missing. References pass by. On practically every page. Not least, we profit from notes on the world of hardboiled fiction that The Big Sleep was about to transform. The hardboiled school was everywhere on the newsstands when Chandler first enrolled in it, and Hill, Jackson & Rizzuto are revelatory here about its catalogue of accessories. The gumshoe? Blondes and blackmail? Hard liquor? The camera eye? They hardly get you started on the hardboiled themes, motifs and devices that Chandler was accommodating, when he shouldered The Big Sleep into the ranks of dark, toughened-up mystery writing. Like his readers, in 1939 Chandler knew his way around dark from direct experience, and could see plenty more tough on the horizon. But by then he’d also worked at how to put those things on the page, until he had the whole repertory of hardboiled dripping from his fingers. It had taken time.
Chandler apprenticed himself to the mystery pulps for most of the 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, down and out of a job, he’d made a living at a penny-a-word, learning his new craft as he wrote. An English classical education had taught him to analyze. He brought method and application of his own. And as for the learning the ropes, the fellow pulp writers he could crib from were the best; there’s a 1936 photo of Black Mask magazine authors, Chandler in there among them, where Dashiell Hammett stands a head above the rest.
Analyzed, absorbed and then practiced in a score of his Black Mask and Dime Detective stories, Chandler imported those hardboiled accessories, wholesale, into his first full-length novel. And yet, though The Big Sleep was born into cliché on an industrial scale, it was promoted hard by its publisher Knopf and it sold; better than the average from the outset, and triumphantly in paperback. The book has been in print ever since. So what did it do that was so different?
Well, obviously not the storyline. That was bulked up from a handful of Chandler’s earlier pulp outings, and plotting is famously a department where he didn’t overstrain. But while the novel begins from conventionally hardboiled beginnings - a private eye visits a rich client, unsure about why he’s being hired, encounters the loyal butler, acts threatened around alluring women and then fragile around gay men - something very different is also going on.
To delight in the detail of those differences, we now have The Annotated Big Sleep. And for the one-liner that cuts to the heart of the matter, there’s still Chandler himself. You’ll know the line I mean, from his essay The Simple Art of Murder, written when Marlowe’s character and worldview had developed through three more novels. It comes where the writer is reflecting on a transformation in fiction that had worked to produce Hammett, by way of Hemingway. ‘It probably started in poetry;’ he says, ‘almost everything does.’
Chandler's First-person Narrator
In Marlowe, Chandler grabs a first-person narrator with both hands, gives his voice to a smart, seen-it-all gumshoe and makes poetry out of his one fixed idea: that aiming for a certain decency, honesty and justice in a corrupting world, is to be his own man. The poetry is in how the gumshoe’s world looks to him. And his rather old-fashioned code is what makes him hero of his own story, an idea that was important to Chandler. ‘In everything that can be called art…’ he says later in The Simple Art of Murder, ‘…there is a quality of redemption.’ It seems that idea - Marlowe’s push back against the odds, his middle-finger defiance that puts heroic in reach of Everyman - hit a general nerve. Perhaps because it did come packaged in the poetry.
As applied to a hardboiled mystery in The Big Sleep the result is a Chandler original. Marlowe’s début nods to some very stiff, high-sounding principles. But wrapped in what Robert Towne calls Chandler’s lazy lyricism, it waves a wand that makes a gumshoe’s version of uprightness look not only tough but subversive. For a generation with no illusions about the realities behind hardboiled fiction - everyday graft, police complicity, the syndicated rackets, the rainproof rich - Marlowe’s splicing of contempt with his own brand of streetwise integrity, proved magnetic. His style as a survivor-hero became the cool, bought and read by millions through the Cold War, Korea and on.
Those accessories to hardboiled - the ones Chandler worked at through the 1930s - live on. Marlowe did them no harm at all. They’ve become as indispensable as high tea and drawing rooms still are to the cozy English murder. But a handful of writers caught the spark, not only of Chandler’s adroitness with the clichés of hardboiled, but also of the poetry; his lazy lyric of the subversive that ties the clichés in ribbons, and transforms them. The same Robert Towne, for one, in his screenplay for Chinatown. Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn for another. And though, if you’ve come with me this far, you won’t need any extra reason for discovering The Annotated Big Sleep, here’s one anyway. Jonathan Lethem also wrote the foreword.