Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

I used to read a LOT of detective fiction in my tweens and teens. I mean, who hasn't? Any kid worth her library card starts off with the Famous Five, of course. And then come the entire bunch - the Secret Seven (a bit kiddish), the Five Find-outers (my favourites), the Mystery series (has anybody apart from me even read those?).

And once you consider yourself too old for Enid Blyton books, you start off on the Hardy Boys series and waste entire years trying to finish off the hundreds of books Franklin W Dixon apparently wrote. For the slightly more snobbish kids, there are the Three Investigators, also American. They had an extremely cool headquarters, and looked into more niche mysteries.

And then comes the day you secretly read one of your mother's Agatha Christie novels. I still remember my first - it was After the Funeral, and it made such a huge impression on me that I still remember the solution to the mystery. It was to be an addiction that lasted many years, and I still don't mind dipping into one as a guilty pleasure. I always preferred Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple though - she was way too irritating.

Who came next? There were so many. The fact that my parents had a membership at the British Council Library ensured that they were mostly British books rather than American. The ones I remember are Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, the amazing PD James and the ex-jockey Dick Francis - very recent, most of them.

The British, of course, are supposed to be the pioneers of detective fiction. Perhaps that's why my exposure to American detective fiction has been comparatively less, and why The Big Sleep is the first Raymond Chandler book I've ever read. That's right, I'd never read a Philip Marlowe mystery before.

I'll give Chandler this - his mysteries are more complicated than the average whodunnit. There are four different murders - with four different murderers! It takes even Philip Marlowe a little while to figure out everything. Chandler's characters are also more realistic than the suited and gowned people you find in the average English manor murder mystery.

But you know what? I don't think I'm going to read another book of his.

Why? Well, for one thing - I didn't like Philip Marlowe. Why is he so full of himself, and in a way that's not funny? Hercule Poirot was full of himself, but Agatha Christie let us laugh at him. Marlowe is always one step ahead of the villains, but not in a way that lets the reader feel superior. (Research has found that we find jokes funny when they make us feel superior. Does that work here, I wonder?)

Another reason is the women. One thing I've gained out of this book is a new and awkwardly long simile - as impossibly sexy as a woman in a Raymond Chandler book. Sample this:
She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn't reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn't often seen in bookstores. She was an ash blonde with greenish eyes, beaded lashes, hair waved smoothly back from ears in which large jet buttons glittered. Her fingernails were silvered. In spite of her get-up, she looked as if she would have a hall bedroom accent. 
She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business men's lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.
There are four main women characters in this book, and they are all along similar lines. And the interesting thing is that not one of them is a 'strong' woman. Two of them throw themselves at Marlowe; another one is foolish and keeps attaching herself to men who can take care of her. All of them get into tight spots, of course, and then they are rescued by - who else? - Philip Marlowe.

A sign of the times, I suppose - after all, Chandler was writing in the thirties. But if Jane Austen could create such strong women in Pride and Prejudice (published more than a century earlier), I don't see why I have to put up with Chandler's misogyny. (Readers who've read more Chandler books, please correct me if I'm wrong. This snap judgement was made on the basis of exactly one book.)

But at the end of the day, the reason I'm not going to read another Chandler book is the fact that he doesn't satisfy the absolute basic thing the reader is looking for in a murder mystery. I want to see if I can solve the mystery. I want the author to give me all the clues, I want to arrive at the solution before the detective does. Chandler doesn't even give his readers a chance.
• • •