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The Art of the Sentence: Raymond Chandler
“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.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Or so begins The Big Sleep, and with it, the third career of one Raymond Thornton Chandler, former accountant and oil exec. It was, instead, about seven years after he had been fired from Dabney Oil for being a drunk and a creep, 1939, with his wife not much of a wife to him anymore and thunderheads in all directions. He’d spent most of those seven years tramping up and down the Southern California coast with this woman eighteen years his senior and a typewriter not too much younger, teaching himself to write by stealing what he liked from the pages of Black Mask and the other pulps. The Big Sleep, his story of a knight in gaudy armor (a “powder-blue suit” with “socks with dark blue clocks on them”) told out of the side of a smartmouth’s mouth, was an S.O.S. Sort of. Anyway, it got him into luxury goods for a while.
Marlowe, the sentence’s speaker, is, as far as we can figure from the rest of the novel, in much the same straits as his creator, in need of several breaks, a wealthy benefactor, and maybe a nap. The charm of this first sentence is that, even so, he doesn’t seem desperate. He speaks only of coolness, of shadow—not yet noon, not yet bright, a “look” of rain far off that, in Los Angeles as nowhere else, means flooding is imminent. It’s been carefully calibrated to come off as cool—notice that “about”; notice the odd combination of exactitude and approximation in the sentence—it’s “mid-October” but not necessarily October 15; nearing or just having past eleven o’clock, we can’t say; the sun not shining but the day not necessarily dark; a rain that isn’t yet rain off in the distance somewhere. Or are we in the foothills? Our speaker does not say.
In fact, all that is asserted here is the voice, Philip Marlowe’s voice. We don’t know what time it is, what date, or even what the weather’s like and this guy’s supposed to be a detective? Whatever happened to “It was a dark and stormy night”? Later on in the novel Chandler will lose track of one of his own characters, so maybe we can chalk it up to too much tippling the stormy night before. But maybe this is rather the man’s character. Marlowe isn’t brighter (a “sun not shining”?) than anyone else in the book, but he’s “hard,” not possessed of a glass jaw, a bluffer, born and bred. An expert in the rope-a-dope, he’s suckered us into winding ourselves whiffing at a puff of smoke, a “look of . . . rain.” The “mystery” of The Big Sleep isn’t much of a mystery—Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple would’ve had the Sternwoods on the carpet in less than a chapter—but it keeps us going because what it isn’t is kind of the point.
See, Chandler wanted his readers to be able to solve the mystery right along with his detective—anything else was cheating. If you’re in the head of the detective or looking over his shoulder but you don’t get to see what he’s thinking until the last page, you’re violating some very obvious principles. His solution? Give us a detective as fuzzy on the facts as we are (as he was), and have him get wise right along with us. What do we know about the setting of this first scene in The Big Sleep? About as much as Marlowe. That’s okay, though, because what we know, we know about Marlowe, and he’s why we bother to read the rest of the book. The mystery he’s trying to solve, like the facts missing from his first sentence, most readers won’t even remember.
Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer and Critique of Pure Reason, a collection of fictions and essays. He lives in Portland, OR, with his wife, Jessica.