|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on August 2, 2016 at 8:55 PM|
#10: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. First line of dialogue in the continuing saga of Philip Marlowe: “Tall, aren’t you?” she said. [and Marlowe replies:] “I didn’t mean to be.”
That’s Philip Marlowe for you, in Raymond Chandler’s first novel starring the wisecracking tough-guy detective. Just as cynical as Sam Spade but much funnier, and just as cynically convinced of the inherent corruption of American society, but amused by it rather than disgusted. I had trouble deciding between The Big Sleep and Farewell, my Lovely to represent Chandler (one of the big three best writers among great crime writers, along with the previously visited Elmore Leonard and John D MacDonald); how they start out could not be more different. The first scene of The Big Sleep is Marlowe paying a call on a multimillionaire whose front doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants.” Farewell, my Lovely starts with Marlowe in a dicy neighborhood giving up on a case but drawn inexorably as a bystander into another involving a bar so cash-strapped that it couldn’t afford to change its name, with fatal consequences, when the owner fails to answer to the disappearance of a girl who worked with the old management. Mild spoiler: both cases hinge on the outrage of innocent people risked and killed to protect the powerful from the consequences of their actions.
There is some racism in Farewell, my Lovely, and some homophobic slurs in The Big Sleep. There is more that is offensive in FML than in TBS which gives an edge to TBS, which is also Marlowe's debut. There could be some interesting discussions as to whether the slurs in Chandler's fiction are genuinely offensive or are signifiers or even commentators of the times - where would we put Chandler on a scale of, say, In the Heat of the Night to The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu? I would also defend Marlowe as a character from charges of bigotry - he certainly respects everyone who intends to put his life in danger on an equal opportunity basis, and in Farewell, my Lovely he is the only one in the case who seems to feel the murder of the African-American bar owner needs to be solved. But my main reason for giving the nod to The Big Sleep is this - it fooled me twice. When I first read it, at 15 or so, it fooled me. Then I read both novels again in preparation for this entry and it fooled me a second time. Farewell, my Lovely is also wickedly plotted, but I began to have dim memories of the denouement with a few chapters to go. But with The Biog Sleep, I was convinced with six pages to do that it was a botch and Chandler had wrapped it up in a sloppy, unsatisfying fashion - but then he really wrapped it up, and I slapped my forehead. Just like a million years ago when I was 15.
By the way, Marlowe is another detective who has never been properly filmed. I understand Dick Powell was convincing in Murder, my Sweet but only Robert Mitchum has ever played Marlowe twice, and that was when he was too old. Who should play Marlowe in a consecutively filmed marathon of all the Marlowe novels (let's have Christopher Nolan direct that series, too). Do any modern actors have the swagger? Maybe Channing Tatum? But does he have the gravity? Maybe Jeffrey Dean Morgan? Readers, if you are out there, weigh in on who could wear Marlowe's fedora...
Categories: Vladimir's Top 20 Mysteries