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Defector Reads A Book

Open The Door! We’re Here To Talk About ‘The Big Sleep’

Cover image: Penguin

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our July DRAB selection was Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Giri Nathan: So I hope everyone is well-rested after their Big Sleep.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Boooo! Unfortunately, this was one of those books that made me think it might be cool to start smoking cigarettes. 

GN: I was a little confused if cigarettes were even thought of as bad then, because there’s a line from General Sternwood at the beginning that wrong-footed me, where he’s enjoying Marlowe’s second-hand smoke and saying that he experiences all of his vices vicariously. So what did they know???

Barry Petchesky: I think it’s also arguable whether Chandler considered alcohol a vice or a necessity, given how ubiquitous it is in his world, and how rarely it’s questioned. Though when he kicks things off with Marlowe saying he “was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” that’s a lovely bit of character introduction.

GN: There are a lot of moments where Marlowe is trying to decide whether or not it’s the right time or place for a drink and pretty much always ends up on the side of Yes, yeah. I was astonished that everyone was driving these vast southern California distances that messed up. Also fighting pretty well.

BP: I was laughing at the drug store counter guy repeatedly being like, “C’mon, you can’t drink here, really, please, c’mon guy.” But no one in this story makes good decisions, in general—except our hero, of course.

MA: Marlowe is a neat character; often in detective stories, the detective is the cleverest, most interesting guy in the room, and Marlowe definitely isn’t. How could he be? He shares the room with kooky racketeers and femmes fatales, and he’s left to sort of play the straight man to everyone else. I think it actually made him more intriguing. 

GN: I also like that he didn’t seem to rely on Sherlock or Monk-style freakish precise observations—he even self-consciously jokes about this at some point—but just uses his intuition to get a vague sense of who’s applying pressure on whom, who has what incentives, who’s good and bad at what types of crime, to develop this murky and ultimately kind of unsatisfying picture of the case he’s investigating. It doesn’t have the puzzle-box quality of a Holmes story but it is cool and more convincing in its way. 

MA: Right. “I’m not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it.” I think you can read Marlowe’s character as a vehicle for some literary criticism. There’s an excellent Raymond Chandler essay called The Simple Art of Murder, which is him relentlessly owning Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie for the formula of their work and their protagonists, which he finds fundamentally dishonest. He doesn’t think you can reconcile what they do with interesting writing: “The coolheaded constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis.” Marlowe isn’t a magnetic Poirot, but his world—and the thoughtlessness of crime in it—is much more real. 

BP: Marlowe is just a dude who works hard and feels loyal to his client and is curious, and sometimes perhaps his personal curiosity outpaces his better judgment. So here’s a question: Is he a hero, an antihero, or an everyman?

GN: In this installment, at least, he comes off as a straightforward hero to me. He is almost super-heroically good at fighting (and smooth-talking while doing it); he operates by a code of honor; he resists the temptations of the Sternwoods in order to do his job properly; he goes above and beyond the mandate of his case to try and figure out what bad stuff is going on in the world (and then offers the money back when that upsets his employer). 

BP: A hero-making moment, or at least a mini–morality play, is when he turns down the advances of multiple attractive women. Which says a lot about Chandler’s ideas about morality and about women. Dames!

MA: I had some nervous laughs at pretty much all of his interactions with women. He’s a suave and poised guy and then keeps ending up in these baffling, awkward situations where women of varying sobriety are flinging themselves at him. I was always much more on edge in the scenes he shared with Carmen or Vivian than I was when, like, some guy was actually sticking a gun to his head.

GN: There were admittedly a few pages at the beginning where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through the whole thing, because of these page-long tracking shots of women that somehow did not seem to give me any clearer a vision of what they looked like (which feels like the least we could ask within the worldview of this book), confusing me more than they did set the scene, establishing only the describer’s lust and lust for baggy metaphor. And also his description of a greenhouse as a sickening place, which I could not relate to at all and had me offended on behalf of the sweet pure air of greenhouses.

BP: I was afraid that the women in this book were going to turn out to be nothing but decoration, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, though, most of them turned out to be basically plot points, certainly with not much in the way of inner lives. Except—by the end—Vivian, who I think was as complex a character as there is to be found here, which is to say, still not very. 

GN: And then there’s Silver-Wig, who seems to hold the most weight in Marlowe’s mind despite the briefness of their encounter, and who he’s thinking of at the end of the book, in a sentence that suddenly projects forward into the future: “and I never saw her again.”

BP: That’s Los Angeles for you! City of empty hopes and dashed dreams.

MA: Chandler’s Los Angeles is so sinister, so brutal and unfamiliar to me. I liked this line from an old Pico Iyer essay in Harper’s on The Big Sleep: “Chandler’s gift, always, was to see that the sunshine is the least interesting thing about California; all that is real there happens in the shadows.” 

GN: I liked that most of the palms we heard about were potted and filled with cigarette butts and only witnessed en route to the grimiest imaginable staircase.

BP: And it rained all the time. Maybe Chandler was laying it on a little thick, but there’s nothing good or even pretty about this version of L.A. You didn’t even need to scratch the surface to see that.

MA: All grift and artifice. 

GN: I also kept thinking about how much money he was blowing on gas. He spends all day driving around, trailing people, going pretty far to follow leads. Good thing he had expenses covered! And $25 a day. How does he make it work??? Can we get a Grub Street diet for Philip Marlowe? I guess we kind of do when he describes what he’s going to eat for breakfast, in graphic detail, while threatening Harry Jones.

MA: Yeah, the Philip Marlowe Money Diaries are probably just alarming allocations for eggs and toast.

BP: The Philip Marlowe Sex Diaries, on the other hand, are real short.

GN: His office seemed pretty bleak, but the apartment actually sounded better than anything I’ll live in in New York. Chandler writes about interiors as well as he thinks he’s writing about women. I learned some great new words: davenport, rose-damask, things of that nature.

MA: The furniture cataloging he does is striking from the very first page. It’s a quality I admire a lot in a writer—Edith Wharton is always my go-to example here—and the description never feels tedious or for description’s sake. 

GN: As someone who has to look up “credenza” on a roughly six-month cycle and is always disappointed to find the answer, I’m amazed when writers have all these words clanking around in their heads, at the ready. He’s probably at his best describing Eddie Mars’s den of sin.

BP: Do you think there’s a purpose to it? Or is the author just really interested in interior design?

MA: I think there’s certainly function to it, in a world-building and character study sense. In the end, we get that haunting image of General Sternwood high in his canopied bed, and you can’t help but feel somewhat disgusted at his pretense of remove from the seedy network he’s actually part of. 

GN: I also think it’s natural for a guy whose job is to go beyond initial appearances to spend a lot of time dwelling on those appearances. We get the sense that Marlowe is surveying every scene he enters, looking for every context clue, even if he doesn’t expect that Holmesian flash of insight. And if we accept the logician / artist binary Chandler lays out in that quote above, it’s clear he would rather err on the side of pure vibes. There was way more set design than script workshopping in the creation of this book.

MA: There’s an amusing story about the filmmakers who were adapting The Big Sleep getting in touch with Chandler to ask him who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur, and he responds that he has no idea.

BP: Yes! The traditional knock on genre fiction/pulp is that it’s only concerned with plot and not at all with characterization or description. And I don’t think that at all applies to this book. It is, in places, absolutely beautifully written, while leaving a giant plot point just hanging. And not particularly to its detriment, in my opinion. And Rusty Regan, who we never see but who represents the overarching whodunnit of the book, is basically a MacGuffin. For you two, was your main interest in reading to find out what happened to Regan, or was it just to spend some time chilling in this world?

GN: Honestly I’m too dim to follow the logic of even the dumbest heist movies I’ve seen so I usually just soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the punching and cars. And then sometimes look up the exact plot points on Wikipedia later. So no, the incompleteness of the plot was not keeping me up at night, and also seems to fit with Marlowe’s realist vision of detective work.

MA: Right. I do enjoy a tidy mystery I can solve alongside a detective, but I think I figured out pretty early that this was not going to be that, and I was content to just surf the waves. 

GN: It sounds like Chandler stitched it together from several pre-existing stories he had written, and that isn’t all that surprising to learn after the fact. It seems like he had more touch points of mood and theme he wanted to hit than a tightly wound plot he needed to unfurl.

BP: Yeah. I’m a big sci-fi guy and a lot of those books are the same kind of “fix-up,” which tend to have the same episodic feel. This might as well have been A Long Weekend In L.A. With Phil. And I have very few complaints about that.

MA: Still, for all Chandler’s focus on atmosphere (and his, let’s say, disinterest in plot neatness), this was just a thrilling book to read. I was amused by how well possibly the oldest trope in mystery writing worked on me: the mysterious knock at the door or the shrill interruption of a doorbell. I was genuinely curious to know who was on the other side of that damn door!

GN: It helps that Philip Marlowe is always, always at the right damn door at the right time. Even if he’s just lurking around. He’s even at the right tree in the middle of the fog, once.

BP: Is the sudden doorbell “the oldest trope in mystery writing”? Or did Chandler invent the trope? I always wonder that about foundational genre books like this. And there are a lot of tropes in here that very plausibly weren’t at all tropes when he wrote them. Like Marlowe dropping dry little quips right in the middle of damn fistfights and shootouts. It felt very cinematic.

GN: Even within the universe of the book, Marlowe is talking about how gangsters all talk a certain way now, because they all watch the same gangster movies; it’s fun to think about the tropes that had already been established at time of writing, and how Chandler was or was not reacting to them. I wondered if Chandler was the first to write the kind of mid-fight quippiness that you’d see out of Peter Parker. My favorite example was when someone pops out of the apartment to see what’s up and Marlowe, who is part of the shooting, is like “Shooting going on,” as if describing the weather. Or when he asked Canino, “Finished?” I loved the fight writing in general—very physical and specific and well-paced.

MA: It’s kind of understated, too! And elegant that way. You blink and someone has clobbered him over the head, and he just matter of factly relays that to you. 

GN: There are a few instances where Marlowe feels like a detached, out-of-body narrator of his own bodily experiences and then I started wondering whether that is characteristic of noir descriptions—this coolly third-person POV, where even things as immediate as pain become part of the atmosphere.

MA: Cool is a good way of putting it, and in every sense of the word. Lots of times I’d read one of his little quips in narration and think, “Oh, that is so cool.” My favorite line came when he was staking out Geiger’s house and said “it seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” 

BP: Are we doing favorite lines now? Because I loved Marlowe asking the General, “Do I have to be polite? Or can I just be natural?” I don’t know how that transcends corniness into coolness, but it did.

GN: Even though some of the overlong descriptions of people didn’t do it for me, there were some incredibly compact one-liners, like a “a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat.”

MA: “Forced me to make a left turn and a lot of enemies” was another one I liked. Despite itself, it worked.

GN: There were also some clunkers, at least when read in the present. I was confused when Marlowe dissed Carmen by telling her she looked like a Filipino on a Saturday. I couldn’t follow what kind of racism we were doing here.

MA: Ha, yes! I wrote it down, too. What does that mean? I did a double take while reading, but wasn’t brave enough to look up an answer.

BP: So, I found this, citing The Annotated Big Sleep

[B]etween 1920 and 1930, 30,000 Filipinos migrated to California. They were known as dandies and sharp dressers, which explains Marlowe’s line to Carmen Sternwood that she’s “[c]ute as a Filipino on Saturday night.” I guess this is a racial slur, but as these things go it seems quite gentle.

It’s praise!

GN: Plot twist!!!!

MA: Oh? A kind slur?

BP: Folks, are we uncanceling Philip Marlowe?

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! August is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.