Vintage Books must have a simple theory that good writing has no depreciation. Their Vintage Crime/Black Lizard line appeared in the 1990s and rejuvenated the words of men long dead. Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have had their respective heydays in and out of their lifetimes, but their work is alternately considered dark genius or unsubstantial pulp. While Hammett and Chandler were fortunate to see major films made of their vision—The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep—many crime writers labored in obscurity, were considered a novelty and were resigned to disappear with the passage of noir. The thing is, light never fully dispatched that corner of literature, for in every decade there blooms new interest. The aesthetic and psychology behind the great crime writers affects fiction and film to this day, evident in the product of James Ellroy, Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers. It is not simply one man’s trash.
Vintage is re-releasing the novels of Raymond Chandler to coincide with national readings and screenings of his work. Chandler began writing in his 40s, publishing just seven novels. In those, he epitomized the crime noir capital in Los Angeles and the definition of hard boiled in detective Philip Marlowe. The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first major work, appeared in 1939. It defied the conventionality of earlier Hammett and precursed the bang of Thompson with a healthy dose of blatant sexuality. Nudity, promiscuity, homosexuality and dirty books take turns with the usual gunplay in Chandler’s maze of plot. It must have been very racy for its time, and yet not so. In the years following the Depression, California—and, for that matter, the United States—was all about forgetting its sobering brush with poverty. Citizens were living high and getting high, in defiance of mortality or morality. Pulp fiction and quickie movies echoed this with lurid stories of bad girls and the bad men they treated badly. Chandler was no different, really, except the quality of his writing far exceeded that of True Detective.
Reading Chandler for the first time is a kick. Reading Chandler for the third or 13th time is like doing anything compulsively: There is greater perception of things nuanced and noticed. Chandler’s brilliance doesn’t entirely lie in concept, though he can muddle the best of us. The framing of dialogue and interplay of characters is where he shows his stuff, moving fluidly through meetings, muggings and druggings. And Chandler is a master at creating his characters. Marlowe, protagonist in each Chandler novel, is an enigma neither handsome nor homely, hilariously deadpan, charming men and women alike while remaining thoroughly incorruptible. Marlowe’s $25-a-day retainer maintains a seedy office and seedier apartment, both with bottles of rye whisky in desk drawers and cupboards—always two glasses, filled at all hours. A sort of moral compass, he’s not always a straight one.
The Big Sleep involves the bored, misanthropic Sternwood family—a spidery father and two poisonous daughters entrenched in so many secrets and schemes it takes nigh on the entire book to expose them. The Sternwoods are beset by every crooked element in the city. It is up to Marlowe to simultaneously rid them of trouble and teach them a lesson. While character development is key to Chandler, description is also his strong suit. From the dark-haired woman with the backless dress playing roulette in a crumbling mansion to her decaying father surrounded by fleshy orchids in a sweltering greenhouse, it is wholly visceral. As in silent films, people are undone in expression. Women gnaw their thumbs, hiss through their teeth, fall to the floor. Men with broken noses and cauliflower ears slowly figure out what they’ve been missing. The settings are streetlight and shadow, faces lit by cigarettes, rain every day. “Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the sidewalk. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places.”
So did I mention the sex? Smut peddler dopes girl with ether to blackmail her with naughty photos. Marlowe deals out and receives heavy propositions from no less than three different women. A bungalow in the hills is the site of a queer situation between two men (Chandler less-than-subtly shows his tough guy colors here). As is typical in true crime writing, there is little emotion or love lost. The two motivating factors in much of this world are lust and greed, often indistinguishable from one another and often the cause of the violence that ensues. Everyone has guns; a few die. Somehow, though, amidst the killing and double entendres, it’s hard to be moved. It’s too perfectly amusing:
She wore brownish speckled tweed, a mannish shirt and tie, hand-carved walking shoes. Her stockings were just as sheer as the day before, but she wasn’t showing as much of her legs. Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter.
“Well, you do get up,” she said, “I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust.”
“Who’s he?” I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.
“A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn’t know him.”
“Tut, tut,” I said. “Come into my boudoir.”
Chandler gives us likable but hollow people, as stylishly beautiful as his writing. Not that he wanted The Big Sleep to be the equivalent of Remembrance of Things Past. There must be an awareness in every writer of the functional limitations of one’s niche. That Chandler’s essence pervades and defines so much of our American landscape is enough. His is a dark and dreamy bubble, where games are played particularly well. In his corrupt amusement park, it’s always a fun ride.