Mould-break­ing Philip Mar­lowe

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By JOHN DUGDALE

SEV­ENTY-five years ago last week a rev­o­lu­tion in crime-writ­ing be­gan when Knopf pub­lished The Big Sleep, Ray­mond Chan­dler’s first novel. Re­views in 1939 were wary and un­en­thu­si­as­tic, how­ever, and only grad­u­ally was it recog­nised that Chan­dler had pulled off a bold fu­sion of high­brow and low­brow – much-ap­plauded by big-name au­thors such as W.H. Au­den, Gra­ham Greene and Eve­lyn Waugh, but also much-im­i­tated by fel­low chron­i­clers of mur­der.

What was so new? Al­most ev­ery­thing in the first chap­ter, which in­tro­duces Philip Mar­lowe as he vis­its the Stern­wood fam­ily man­sion. Mar­lowe speaks to us. Whereas Holmes, Poirot, Mai­gret, Sam Spade are ob­served ex­ter­nally, Mar­lowe is the de­tec­tive as au­to­bi­og­ra­pher, start­ing three con­sec­u­tive sen­tences in the first para­graph with “I” (end­ing with “I was call­ing on four mil- lion dol­lars”).

He is a pri­vate de­tec­tive, yet not pa­tri­cian. By show­ing him meet­ing his so­cial bet­ters, Chan­dler’s open­ing con­trasts him as a man of the peo­ple (like a cop in this, but too non­con­formist to be one) with the likes of Holmes and Lord Peter Wim­sey, who don’t need the money. Even call­ing on a po­ten­tial client – Holmes waits for them to call on him, Poirot has agree­able in­vi­ta­tions to coun­try houses – sets him apart.

He is sin­gle, and at­tracted and at­trac­tive to women. The open­ing’s flir­ta­tious en­counter with kit­ten­ish Car­men Stern­wood dif­fer­en­ti­ates him from his pre­de­ces­sors, who tend to be ei­ther sex­less or mar­ried.

He is very literary. His first sen­tence – “It was about 11 o’clock in the morn­ing, mid Oc­to­ber, with the sun not shin­ing and a look of hard wet rain in the clear­ness of the foothills” – could be Scott Fitzger­ald. And in The Big Sleep the ini­tial nexus of crime is a book­shop.

He is a dandy, as fond of fine clothes as he is of fine prose: the book’s sec­ond sen­tence men­tions his “pow­der-blue suit” and even de­scribes his socks (“black wool A with dark blue clocks on them”).He should not be con­fused with Humphrey Bog­art. Bog­art, 47 when he played the 38year-old sleuth in Howard Hawks’s film ver­sion, tellingly wore a dark suit and made Mar­lowe more of a gruff 1930s tough guy (like Dashiell Ham­mett’s Spade, whom he had played in The Maltese Fal­con).

Mar­lowe makes jokes. Witty crime fic­tion ex­isted be­fore, but those al­lowed to be droll usu- ally be­longed to the leisure classes – noir’s ear­lier hard­boiled he­roes were merely blunt. Made to the Stern­woods’ but­ler, the wise­crack with which the first chap­ter ends (told Car­men’s name, Mar­lowe says “You ought to wean her. She looks old enough”) is pok­ing fun at toffs in­stead of toffs pok­ing fun.

Over the 75 years since The Big Sleep ap­peared, the Chan­dler for­mula has been con­tin­u­ally mim­icked by de­tec­tive writ­ers look­ing for more class and literary nov­el­ists (in­clud­ing Thomas Pyn­chon, Martin Amis and Roberto Bolano) look­ing for a plot. Oddly, though, it’s re­cently fallen out of fash­ion: in to­day’s TV se­ries and nov­els, the pro­tag­o­nists are ei­ther po­lice de­tec­tives or ec­cen­tric ge­niuses like the mod­ern-day Holme­ses or Lis­beth Sa­lan­der, not smart, self-em­ployed reg­u­lar guys. Only the hu­mour is still there – from Sher­lock to Saga Noren, to­day’s sleuths have to be funny. – Guardian News & Me­dia

ray­mond Chan­dler, shown in a 1946 por­trait, in­tro­duced a new type of crime thriller when he cre­ated pri­vate eye Philip Mar­lowe. — aP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.