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Enigma, Not Variations

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I’m going to start t his post with a warning.

In this post, I am going to be writing about a mystery  novel.  It’s an old mystery  novel.  It’s considered a classic.  Most of you have probably already read it if you’re ever going to read it at all.

But I’m going to be writing about it, and that means that there may be spoilers.

I will not do that annoying thing where you write SPOILERS in big letters and set off that content with extra space.

So be forewarned. Spoilers may exist here. 

First, though,  let’s get to this, the very first paragraph of this novel:

>>>It was about eleven 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.  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-dress private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars. <<<<<

In case you didn’t recognize it, that is the first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

I read it because a person whose work I respect a lot–Keith Snyder, who wrote Night Men, that I discussed here earlier–

Anyway, I read it because Keith Snyder mentioned it, on Facebook, as a book that transcends the genre, the book that proves that the writing of detective stories can reach the stature of literature.

This was not the first time I had ever tried to read Chandler.  Chandler is the long-time favorite of a certain brand of English professor, and Chandler is the mystery writer you will be steered to if you ever take a course in mystery and detective fiction. 

Personally, I have always had the suspicion that English departments like Chandler so much precisely because he could not be confused with what they’d call “real literature,” because he is so flagrantly arch and fake that anybody who reads him will automatically go, “oh, well, if THAT’S the best the genre can do.”

But here was Keith recommending Chandler, and I like Keith, and this  was a Chandler I  had never tried to read, so–

It’s one of the nice things of living in a house where two mystery writers have  lived that there are a lot of mystery books just sort of floating around, and that included this one.

So I dug it out of the space behind the door in the spare room, took it downstairs, opened it up, and read…that.

If Keith  hadn’t mentioned that book as a good one, that’s where I would have stopped.

Because that is not just bad writing.  It is very, very, very, very, very, very, very bad writing.  It is almost comical bad writing. 

No, I take that back.  It isn’t almost anything.  It IS comical bad writing. 

And, as it turns out,  it’s the start of something like a pattern.  Every once in a while the story comes to a screeching halt and we are treated to one of these descriptions, always long, always including the details of whatever whichever character is wearing, and, in the case of men, almost always including the color of his socks.

The color of his socks.

I am not  making that up.

Put the descriptions and the socks together with Chandler’s other writer’s tick–the tendency to indulge in similes of a kind so awful that they sound like he’s making fun of himself–and what you have is page after page of really bad writing.  Just go put in all the reallies up there.

The plot was not only no better, if might have been worse–and that in spite of the fact that the central mystery was actually pretty interesting.

The  next time somebody tells me that Chandler is to be valorized for his “realism,” I’m going to laugh until I choke.

Bodies flying around left and right,  Marlowe (Chandler’s detective) concealing evidence and not only getting away with it but getting thanked by the cops, cops suborning  perjury and hiding crimes and doing anything else if it’s for a guy with money or somebody they like–the mind would boggle, but it doesn’t really have time.  The book is fast and there isn’t much of it.

I sat around wondering what it was that ever  made anybody think this was a good book, never mind a book that “transcends the genre” and proves that detective fiction can be just as much Literature as anything else.

And then a funny thing  happened.

I finished the book.

I put  it down where I could find it again when I got around to wanting to write this post.

And I wanted another one.

I’m not making that up, either.

I put it down.

I looked at it.

And I wanted another one.

And I still don’t know why.

There is virtually  nothing I usually like in this book, and my guess is that there never will be in any of Chandler’s writing.  I don’t think portraying the world as entirely corrupt in almost every aspect is much more realistic than one of Miss Marple’s villages, and may be less.  Philip Marlowe comes off like an addled adolescent so busy spraying the landscape with testosterone that he doesn’t have time to think.  Rex Stout’s take on the same character–Archie Goodwin–is much better done and much more attractive.

But I wanted more of it, just the same.  And I may never know why.

Here’s a factor in reading and writing that nobody ever considers–what is it that some people have that makes their work compelling, no matter how intrinsically bad, or intrinsically good, it is?



Written by janeh

May 25th, 2013 at 8:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Enigma, Not Variations'

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  1. Ah! Another victim of “(Edgar Rice) Burroughs Syndrome!” I could write an essay on ERB’s literary faults, but that won’t keep me from re-reading THUVIA, MAID OF MARS and CHESSMEN OF MARS again this year. I don’t feel it with Chandler, though. On the other hand, his literary faults don’t bother me as much.
    I still think “compelling” and “narrative drive” are literary phlogiston. These are good–maybe great–writers in some respect we can’t or won’t name. Maybe it’s the sort of world they describe, or the sort of people who inhabit that world.
    I did notice the similes slacked off a bit after the first few chapters. I’m going to have to re-read the short stories THE BIG SLEEP was cannibalized from. My recollection was that at least one was better constructed, but it’s been a long time.


    25 May 13 at 1:24 pm

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