No game for knights

Caption:Trench-coated masculinity: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the film version of "The Big Sleep". Photo: Special Arrangement

“The most durable thing in writing is style and style is the most important investment a writer can make with his time,” said novelist Raymond Chandler and certainly he practised what he preached. His 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first — though certainly not the last — of his that I have read is so steeped in style that it crackles. Having tried his hand, with varying degrees of lack of success, at the civil service, journalism, stringing tennis racquets, picking fruit and book-keeping, Chandler turned to writing private detective stories for pulp magazines and after six years of maturing produced The Big Sleep. With that he created the archetypal private detective in Philip Marlowe, who along with Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, has defined all private detectives produced in fiction since. All the cool, laconic, tough men with an often surprising sense of right and wrong; to the extent that even Ian Fleming can be counted among his admirers.

Set in Los Angeles of the 1930s, The Big Sleep depicts a dark and uncertain world, a world of pornographers and gamblers, operating under the protective eye of crooked law officers, a world of blackmail, double-crossing and killing. And of course, blondes. (A famous Chandler quote: “I do a lot of research- particularly in the apartments of tall blondes.”) A corrupt, morally decayed world where love rings hollow and glamour only hides ugliness. Into such a world steps the “painfully” honest, hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe, with his eagle eye and somewhat anachronistic sense of ethics.

We know him right from the first paragraph on: “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.” Though very unlike “the greasy little men snooping around hotels” who usually typify private detectives, Marlowe soon gets rid of the powder-blue suit and pulls on his trench-coat to investigate the blackmail case handed over to him. He dashes off to the nearest drugstore to buy a pint of whisky and uses enough of it to keep him “warm and interested.” He does so in his own style and manner and as he tells the tall elder daughter — the fleeting romantic interest — of the man who hires him: “I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

By the time the book ends, Marlowe seems out of his depth in a world that has lost all moorings of morality. To the dead men around him he says: “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.” In fact the realisation of how outdated his ethics are had come to him earlier when in a prize scene he continues to stare at his chessboard even as the young blonde is trying to seduce him. “The move with the knight was wrong….Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.”

As one turns the pages of The Big Sleep, one would be forgiven for thinking that one is in an old-fashioned theatre, watching a black and white Hollywood movie, with scene after scene of rain-swept night streets, winged-tail Chevrolets, tough men in Fedoras, cigarettes hanging limply from the corners of their lips, dinner-jacketed gamblers and long-legged femme fatales in black dresses……Written in three months, the book seemed to have internalised the fast pace of its writer, heightened by its taut and fast dialogue, full of rapier thrusts worthy of a Cyrano.

Clearly, it was a book made for a movie and Phil Marlowe's was a role begging to be played by Humphrey Bogart. It all duly happened in 1946 when Bogart's trench-coated casual masculinity crashed with devastating effect with the delectable blonde look of Lauren Bacall. The screenplay was written by, among others, none other than William Faulkner.

Stylish language
The style element of The Big Sleep comes firstly, from the icy cool voice of the narrator and then largely from the use of language. With amazing ease, Chandler strews similes and one-liners across the pages until it begins to seem completely natural. The first blonde who enters the book is seen to have “little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.” She is the same one whose face falls “apart like a bride's pie crust” and into whose eyes, when he brushes aside her literally naked advances, doubt creeps in “noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a young blackbird.” Plants have stalks “like the newly washed fingers of dead men” and dry white hairs cling to the scalp of an old man “like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.”

The same old man, weak and dying, uses “his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings.” Bubbles rise in a glass “like false hopes”, the lady's “breath is as delicate as the eyes of a fawn” and blood begins to move around in him “like a prospective tenant looking over a house.”

And I have saved some of my favourite one-liners for the end: first: “She was as sore as an alderman with the mumps”; two: “It seemed like a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in.” and three: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”