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The Big Sleep
3.18.2003 by Julian, every Tuesday.

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Meet Philip Marlowe, the private detective who stars in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Oil millionaire General Sternwood is being blackmailed, and he has hired Marlowe to deal with the situation. While looking into it Marlowe stumbles across a high-class pornography ring, a kidnapping and several murders. What’s more, he has to deal with General Sternwoods wild daughters along the way. Over it all hangs the name of Rusty Regan, an ex-bootlegger who was once married to one of the General Sternwood’s daughters, but who mysteriously vanished one day.

Philip Marlowe is a tough and determined P.I. (or “shamus,” as detectives are called in the novel), with a strong sense of justice. Even after he has completed his assignment, he refuses to accept payment until he has tied up all the loose ends. Unlike other Noir detectives, he doesn’t take advantage of women. When Vivian Regan tries to seduce him he tells her: “The first time we met I told you I was a detective. Get it through your lovely head. I work at it, lady. I don’t play at it.” His rejection of women seems almost psychotic at times. When Vivian’s sister, Carmen, turns up naked in his bed (she spends quite a lot of the book naked), he kicks her out and rips his bed to pieces in disgust. At one point he even says, “women make me sick.”

Raymond Chandler had a macho streak to him, and this gave him a somewhat conflicted view of writing. On the one hand, he considered his writing to be art, but on the other hand, he considered that viewpoint to be a bit wussy. At one point he even claimed writing should be left to women. Chandler was also a bit of a homophobe, so he was suspicious of favourable criticism of his work, because he thought literary critics were all gay.

Raymond Chandler grew up in England, and only moved to the U.S. later in life. This gave his writing a unique style. Frederic Jameson describes it as: “collages of heterogeneous material, of odd linguistic scraps, figures of speech, colloquialisms, place names and local sayings, all laboriously pasted together in an illusion of continuous discourse.” Chandler himself says:
I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To use it I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself. Everything else is apt to be passé before it gets into print…
Indeed, Chandler made up the term “the big sleep” as a synonym for death.

Throughout the book Chandler uses exaggerated comparisons and overblown metaphors, like, “She was in oyster-white lounging pajamas trimmed with white fur, cut as flowingly as a summer sea frothing on the beach of some small and exclusive island.” Or: “The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength like an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.” Because of the genre, these devices do not seem awkward or out-of-place. They have the same kind of appropriate-innappropriateness of Tom Waits lyrics, and Chandler’s writing is superior to Hammett’s and Cain’s.

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