The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.
The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.
“Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.” ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
I have been having a lot of fun lately reading the annotated version of the Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The text of the novel appears on the left side of the book while the notes are on the right. This book was annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto. Much of the material in this review is gleaned from their notes.
Raymond Chandler wrote, as Ross Macdonald said, like a slumming angel. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, was portrayed as a knight errant, searching for adventures and rescuing damsels in distress. He embodied the chivalric code.
In The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.” He also said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
The Big Sleep, like all of Chandler’s novels and short stories, is of the hard boiled, pulp fiction, detective story genre. But Chandler was a cut above the rest. Heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, he improved upon a category of fiction that was mostly known for its lurid and salacious subject matter.
Another reason I like this book is that it gives the history of Los Angeles during and around the time period (1930s) of the novel. It also goes to great lengths to explain Americanisms, colloquialisms, slang, and genre jargon.
The Big Sleep, while a great read and a ripping good story, has a complicated plot. In this version the editors give us some guidance into Raymond Chandler’s intricate and labyrinthine novel.
I quote liberally from the novel as Chandler’s writing style is the best part of his work and the most entertaining. His use of hyperbole and exaggeration is a real gas. Also, I will be dropping some interesting asides about LA.
Los Angeles in the 1910s was the fastest growing city on earth. The population exploded 400% between 1910 and 1930. It went from 310,000 to about 1,250,000, with the greater LA County area housing 2.5 million. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was built to steal water from the Owens Valley 250 miles away. Corruption was rife. Politicians and the police often worked together with organized crime. Los Angeles was also known as a “Sin City” much like Las Vegas, with booming prostitution and gambling. According to journalist Carey McWilliams, “Los Angeles was the kind of place where perversion was perverted and prostitution was prostituted.”
“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”
Marlowe cracks wise throughout the novel. The term wisecrack dates from the 1920s and is associated with tough guy or hard-boiled fiction. The queen of the wise crack was the dame of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker, who was known to have said, “The first thing I do in the morning brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
Carmen: Tall, aren’t you?
Marlowe: I didn’t mean to be.
Carmen: What’s your name?
Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.
Carmen: That’s a funny name. Are you a prize fighter?
Marlowe: Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.
Chandler considered it his duty as a writer to affirm life and liveliness against the deadly and the dull. A sentiment I have always lived by myself.
She put a thumb up and bit it. It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow, like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint. She bit it and sucked it slowly turning it around I her mouth like a baby with a comforter.
Chandler used blackmail in fourteen of his short stories and five of his novels. Blackmail was very common in LA in the 20s and 30s. As headlines show: “GIRL TRIES BLACKMAIL! CAUGHT IN POLICE TRAP!” “FUGITIVE SEIZED IN EXTORTION CASE.” “FANTASTIC PLOT AGAINST POLA NEGRI BARED” “EXTORTION PLOT SUSPECT TAKEN: STANDARD OIL MILLIONAIRE’S EX-CHAUFFEUR ACCUSED.” W. Sherman Burns, head of the Burns Detective Agency, said in 1922, “Blackmail is the big crime in America today.
The 1939 WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guide calls Los Angeles the fifth largest Mexican City in the world.
In 1904 Lincoln Stephens wrote an expose called, The Shame of American Cities. In it he states politics is business. In America, politics is an arm of business and the aim of business it to make money without care for the law, because politics, controlled by business, can change or buy the law. Politics is interested in profit, not municipalities, prosperity, or civic pride. The spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit. Raymond Chandler wrote in 1934, “The typical racketeer is only slightly different from the business man.”
Ernest Hopkins wrote in Our Lawless Police, 1913, “Nothing so clearly marks our policing traditions in American cities as the use of extreme and unlawful force. In LA there exists a theory of law enforcement more openly opposed to the constitution than any I have yet encountered.”
“A life is a life.”
“Right. Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”
There seems to be a connection between French Existentialist writers and hard-boiled fiction writers like James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond chandler. Albert Camus may have been influenced by the private investigators appearing in American detective novels like Philip Marlowe, as his portrayal of the quintessential alienated outsider Meursault in his own novel, The Stranger, clearly shows.
“I was fired for insubordination. I test very high on insubordination.” Marlowe
Marlowe is not an outlaw, but he does live by his own code, and he sometimes breaks the law by so doing. Jean-Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on none but himself; that he alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than to the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Marlowe understands this and accepts the challenge.
Some of my favorite lines and quotes from the novel:
“I haven’t asked her. I don’t intend to. If I did, she would suck her thumb and look coy.”
“I met her in the hall. She did that to me. Then she tied to sit on my lap. I was standing up at the time.”
Vivian: A lot depends on who is in the saddle.
“I’ve been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”
“That’s how people get false teeth.”
And the last line of the novel:
I just finished reading Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It was a monumental mountain of beautiful prose. Now I turn my attention to a different sort of angel. A slumming angel. Of course I am speaking of none other than Raymond Chandler. I have read The Big Sleep before, but not the new annotated edition. Chandler’s prose is a bit more hard boiled than Wolfe’s but it is no less poetic. I can’t wait to get started!
“Do you always wear black?”
“Yes. It is more exciting when I take my clothes off.”
“Do you have to talk like a whore?”
“You do not know very much about whores, amigo. They are always most respectable. Except of course the very cheap ones.”
The fault dear Brutus lies in our our selves, not in our stars.
The movie Inherent Vice (2014) is based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon of the same name. Inherent vice is a maritime term used to describe cargo by insurance companies. It is also sometimes applied to ships. There is a whole discussion around this term in the book which is also echoed in the movie:
“Isn’t that like original sin?” Doc wondered?
“It’s what you can’t avoid,” Sauncho said. “Stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo – like eggs break – but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out?”
“Like the San Andreas Fault,” it occurred to Doc. “Rats living up in the Palm trees.”
“Well,” Sauncho blinked, “maybe if you wrote a marine policy on L. A., considering it, for some defined reason, to be a boat…”
“Hey, how about a ark? That’s a boat, right?”
“That big disaster Sortilege is always talking about, way back when Lemuria sank into the Pacific. Some of the people who escaped then are spoze to’ve fled here for safety. Which makes California like an ark.”
“Oh, nice refuge. Nice, stable, reliable, piece of real estate.”
Director Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a faithful rendition of the book in his 2014 movie, with only a few scenes and locales dropped, which doesn’t seem to have hurt the movie to any appreciable extent. One change, which I thought was inspired, was to create a voice-over narrative by one of the minor but important characters from the book: Sortilege. This character seems to have a spiritual dimension and a clairvoyance which allows her a certain omniscience helping to fill in some of the gaps in the rather convoluted plot.
The story takes place in a seedy beachfront community in Southern California in 1970 right around the time of the Manson murders. It marks the end of the ’60’s which, as Hunter S. Thomson described in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was a time when the high wave of the culture had reached its high-water mark and rolled back into the desert.
The movie is chocked full of interesting and weird characters, some hippies and some straight. There is the expected clash between the the straight culture and the counter culture. The story, as I mentioned above, is quite convoluted but I will attempt to describe it here. It is the story of California, not about water rights, but about real estate development. It ain’t Chinatown, Jake, it’s the Long Goodbye. Part Raymond Chandler and part Joan Didion, it is both a comedy crime caper and a film noir.
Joaquin Phoenix plays stoner private eye Doc Sportello. His nemesis is Lt. Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornson, played with devilish glee by Josh Brolin. Doc’s ex, Shashta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), brings him a case involving her new boy friend, the married real estate mogul, Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). It seems that Mickey’s wife and her boyfriend are plotting to to kidnap the hapless developer and they want Shasta in on the caper which involves having Mickey committed to a loony bin. Shasta Fay is not sure how much loyalty she owes Mickey and that is why she shows up at Doc’s. Things get complicated from there and include a crime syndicate named The Golden Fang which is also the name of a mysterious yacht.
There are many subplots, twists, and turns that are all somehow connected. There is another missing persons case involving Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) who turns up at the same loony bin as Mickey Wolfman. Doc is also involved with pretty assistant district attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) who helps him out with some confidential files related to the case. Doc pays a visit to the headquarters of the Golden Fang where he encounters coked out dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short). Doc is aided in his endeavors by maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro).
I had to watch the movie twice and read the book before it made total sense to me. But it was worth the effort. I will tell you I loved this movie and consider it one of the best films to come out of 2014. It was underrated then, I thought, but since has gained popularity and is tending upwards.
I highly recommend this entertaining and thought provoking movie!