What a wonderful novel: Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”; UPDATED on the difference between American Hard-Boiled and English Whodunits

Chandler is a superb writer, and his detective, Philip Marlowe, is the distilled essence of a hard-boiled cynic–with gut-level integrity.

The plot is convoluted, but intelligible.

Not so, the movie’s plot, which is famously incoherent but fun to watch, for all that.

After all, Bogie and Bacall and director Howard Hawks suffuse it with noir atmosphere.

After a while, you stop caring that it makes no sense. You just soak it up.

Still, I knew Chandler’s novel was different. At least, that’s what I vaguely remembered from reading it years ago. So, I decided to revisit it.

Good idea.

It’s a great read, not only for Chandler’s prose style but for Marlowe’s interaction with tough guys, rich guys, sleaze balls, cops, crazy women, and shrewd women, all looking for an angle in 1930s LA. Marlowe knows how to play their games, but keeps his integrity (without being goody two-shoes) as he does it.

What makes Chandler and Hammett’s work so different from the classic English whodunits?

Here’s my take. In the hard-boiled American genre, the whole world is steeped in evil sharpies. We aren’t totally focused, as we are in classic English mysteries, in finding the single person who committed the murder (given that everyone in a small, well-defined group has a plausible motive–and perhaps some clues pointing in their direction).

In the American genre, the whole underworld is implicated. Lots of them “done it.” The problem is not just finding one guy. It is unraveling the whole tangled mess of lies and crimes. Since the private eye must travel constantly in that underworld, his (or her) problem is maintaining a moral compass while all about him have none.

Sleazy as that world is, what fun to be lost in it, guided by such capable hands as Chandler’s.

 

2 Comments
  • Dave Schuler
    January 5, 2018

    Among American writers of detective fiction the top-selling authors are Erle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane, Evan Hunter (Ed McBain), and Rex Stout, in declining order of popularity. Of those only one is hardboiled (Mickey Spillane, and thinking of him as hardboiled is an understatement—more splat) while Evan Hunter wrote mostly police procedurals.

    The Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe stories are more akin to British mysteries. My point is that the real dichotomy is not between British (drawing room) and American (hardboiled) but between the gentleman/gentlewoman detective on the one hand and hardboiled on the other. It’s actually more a trichotomy, adding police procedurals.

    And, of course, no American writer of detective fiction remotely approaches the popularity of Agatha Christie or Georges Simenon.

  • Charles Lipson
    January 5, 2018

    Excellent points all.

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