This is Book Club, but unlike some other clubs, you can talk about it, in fact I hope you do. The only punches thrown here are those on the written page.
The first rule of Book Club is you must love books. If you agree with that, then… join the club. It’s all about books, going beyond the page, delving into the deeper currents within the words, and discovering the sunken treasure beneath the surface.
Some say that to become a proficient writer one needs to read. It is also true that books can be read on many levels. More often than not, when reading a book, one time for the first time, we get the story, the events, the plot elements as they happen. More often than not, there are deeper currents below the surface. Nuances and undiscovered themes we miss on a cursory reading.
For this Blog I am reading the books a minimum of two times. Once I read it to get the story, and a second time to mine the gold. Engaging a book in this way can reap enjoyable and entertaining, emotional and intellectual rewards for the reader. For the writer, books can become a master class in plot, theme, character, and technique.
THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler
The book falls in the Noir genre. Raymond Chandler, who wrote in the 1930-40’s, is credited as one of the founding fathers of this genre. You and I might know Noir better as the wise-cracking, down-on-his-(or her)-luck private investigator.
This is not to say that every detective story finds its roots in Noir and Chandler, but those that involve the dark side of the city, populated by seedy, unscrupulous characters who are engaged in notorious and pervasive acts of vice certainly trace their roots to Chandler.
Book Club Breaking News: A Good Knight
Critics have pointed out that the character of Philip Marlowe can be understood as a knight of the realm. Indeed, Chandler seems to be saying as much through the use of a symbol very early on in the book.
In chapter one, while waiting for a meeting with his client in the client’s home, Marlowe, speaking in first person (a pervasive characteristic of the Noir genre), tells us about a stained glass panel set in the wall.
“Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”
Going with the idea that in any good piece of writing no words are wasted, we gain insight into the hero and the role he plays by paying attention to what Chandler is saying about Marlowe here. It is not without significance that just a bit later in this story, Philip Marlowe will rescue Carmen Sternwood. She will be incapacitated, not by ropes to a tree, but by Ether, a drug. She will in fact be nude.
Book Club Bulletin
Chandler shows something of the character through the use of a symbol early on, a symbol he will echo and reinforce with action later on.
Marlowe is a knight of the realm, but he’s not THIS knight. What does Marlowe (and Chandler through Marlowe) say about this symbol and consequently about this character?
Marlowe says the knight is not really trying to release this woman. He has raised his vizor [sic] to be sociable, perhaps seeking to gain something from the woman, that rescuing her may not be his primary motive here. In any event, he is “fiddling” and “not really trying.”
But Marlowe will not fiddle. He certainly will try, right up to the very end, with everything he has. Unlike this knight in the stained glass, he is not out to be sociable. Indeed, throughout the story, he can be rude, snarky, off-putting, offensive. He characterizes himself as “insubordinate.”
“I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”
“And a little bit of a cynic,” the old man smiled. “You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
He is he not sociable. He does not curry favor, or seek to gain something for himself. He does what he does out of a sense of duty, and for very little compensation. In speaking with the daughter of his client towards the end of the book the knight reveals his true mettle.
“I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you’ll think of me, I’ll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up. I do all this for twenty-five bucks a day…”
Vivian Sternwood, the eldest daughter of his client has just accused him of doing what he does for gain. She offers him fifteen-thousand dollars to look the other way. Rather than being happy to achieve such a payout, he gets angry, righteously angry and defends his own sense of honor.
Indeed, the case could be made that as Marlowe moves through the dark city, with its sordid denizens, he is the one honorable man, the one whose honor remains intact, albeit a bit tattered and threadbare.
Indeed, he may even feel something of the burden of being the knight, a man of some honor in a world that places no value on it. From Marlowe, later:
“I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.”
He says this to himself, even as behind him, in his bed, a woman, a woman he could take, but does not. Marlowe is not sociable and he will not fiddle.
Book Club Bulletin
Chandler, having conveyed something of what the character is through a symbol, makes it do double duty and conveys a little something of what the character is not.
By using this neat trick, Chandler shows who the character is rather than using clunky words. The reader gets to discover this person in a vastly more nuanced way then merely getting fed a description. Chandler shows the symbol early on, and then shows the character being the embodiment of that symbol or the opposite of that symbol at key points throughout the book.
And speaking of opposite, the antagonist, the foil. Chandler knows that story is conflict, conflict, conflict, and there is no better way to see what the hero is like than watching him go up against the villain.
Book Club Breaking News: Eddie Mars
Again, Chandler seems to be giving clues, a symbol early, and the embodiment of that symbol at key points. Who is Mars but the god of war. Eddie Mars will wage war and Marlowe will have to be the one to fight him, stand against him, stop him. Marlowe the knight rides out and meets Mars, the evil doer, his personal dragon.
It is a common trope, the villain and the hero being at odds, but being shades of the same person, similar in nature save for which side of the thin line separating good and evil they stand on.
The villain is the hero’s double. It is through his interactions with the villain that the reader learns of the hero’s character, what he is, and what he is not. They are symbols for each other.
Mars is a tough, clever, sarcastic, and dogged pursuer of his truth. Marlowe is a tough, clever, sarcastic, and dogged pursuer of his truth. Is there any meaning in the fact that their names are similar? Mars. Marlowe? Despite how similar they are, how close they each stand to the line that separates them, Mars is everything that Marlowe stands against. From Chandler’s hand to Marlowe’s mouth:
“Once outside the law you’re all the way outside. You think he’s just a gambler. I think he’s a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops. He’s whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it. Don’t try to sell me on any high-souled racketeers. They don’t come in that pattern.”
Book Club Bulletin
Chandler shows that Heroes and Villains can be doubles of each other, similar except for the line that divides them.
Through symbol and circumstance, device and deed, the reader learns something of the hero, the forces he is up against, and the nature of the battle he must face. The story is mined and the reader is rewarded.
We’ve met our hero, learned something about him. We’ve met his double, the one who stands in his way, see that the two aren’t all that different except where they are. We move deeper still into the story, to more signs and symbols, devices and distractions…
Read The Book
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Available wherever ebooks are sold