"She's a grifter, shamus. I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel."
—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Do you remember the tropical storm of October 1? Winds howling, sky boiling like a pot of dirty oatmeal, rain sluicing down? What a good day it would have been to huddle at home in slippers and robe, brew a pot of tea, and curl up with a mystery novel. And yet, on that nasty afternoon, a number of ardent mystery fans donned their rain gear and ventured out into the maelstrom to attend the first presentation of “Sinister Reading: Crime, Mystery, and Detective Fiction at the New York Public Library.” What is it about this kind of fiction that makes its readers so ardent?
Mysteries constitute one of the world’s most enduring forms of popular literature. You might get an argument from those who support novels about spaceships and alien life forms, sorcerers and flying dragons, or steroidal men with bare chests and buxom women clothed in tatters. But it is mystery fiction, from the best to the most formulaic, which represents some attempt to deal with the world as it really is and with people as they really are. In that regard, at least, not much separates it from mainstream fiction. Where do the parameters blend and blur? Do we call Crime and Punishment a crime novel? What about Faulkner’s Sanctuary or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? Many mainstream novels have crime as their focal point, and even more feature puzzles which require unraveling. In one of the best books on the subject, Talking About Detective Fiction, P. D. James makes the case that Jane Austen’s Emma has all the characteristics of a detective story:
“Here the secret which is the mainspring of the action is the unrecognized relationships between the limited number of characters. The story is confined to a closed society in a rural seting, which was to become common in detective fiction, and Jane Austen deceives us with cleverly constructed clues... some based on action, some on apparently innocuous conversations, some in her authorial voice. At the end, when all becomes plain and the characters are at last united with their partners, we wonder how we could have been so deceived.”
Yet the stories which I have labeled as “Sinister Reading” are usually distinguishable from great literature. Somehow you always know the difference. When that Friday’s presentation was over, one audience member made an intriguing comment. He had recently read Great Expectations and relished it for its broad canvas, large themes, and multitude of characters palpitating with raw Dickensian energy. Then he read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, at my recommendation, and was unable to share my enthusiasm. His point, I believe, was that since we are allowed only one trip through this vale of tears, why should we waste time reading anything which isn’t the best and most ennobling that literature has to offer.
Raymond Chandler might not be in that league; but, fortunately, reading isn’t an either/or situation. You can read The Big Sleep over your coffee and cereal in the morning, switch to Great Expectations on your evening commute, and lull yourself to sleep with King Lear. I can’t promise that this won’t inflict some damage to your psyche, but it is possible. And while Chandler isn’t Dickens, he is an iconic figure in American fiction of the thirties and forties, still extremely readable today, and should not be dismissed out of turn. (Or relegated to movie versions, none of which get it quite right. Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe in The Big Sleep—okay, I suppose; Eliot Gould as Marlowe in The Long Goodbye—I don’t think so.) These are stories which are meant to be read and their language savored, as they exist mainly in the narrator’s voice, in the crisp vernacular dialogue, and in the sharply etched portraits of locales and characters.
In America there has always been a barbed wire fence separating high and low culture. But the ghettoization of mystery fiction might have begun in the mid-1940s when Edmund Wilson, the foremost literary critic of his time, wrote three influential articles that appeared in the New Yorker : “Why Do People Read Detective Stories,” “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” and “Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound.” The point of these pieces was to denounce mystery writing as worthless and to declare the sort of people who enjoyed it as indulging “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” The put-down of the genre was very nearly inclusive. Hammett’s quintessential detective novel, The Maltese Falcon, seemed “not much above those newspaper picture strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero.” Dorothy Sayers’s classic The Nine Tailors was “one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field.” Curiously, the only mysteries that escaped his blanket condemnation were the Sherlock Holmes stories, which pleasurably recalled Wilson’s own childhood reading, and, more surprising, Raymond Chandler, who was named as the best of the contemporary bunch. Even with a skeptic, Chandler stood out.
I had read all of Raymond Chandler a long time ago; but, except for the general recollection of a pleasurable experience, I couldn’t summon up any particulars. (The truth is, I can’t summon up very much of Great Expectations, either, outside of a few basic plot points. It’s a cruel trick when books sail out of the brain so soon after entering.) To prepare for the presentation of “Sinister Reading,” I decided to reread The Big Sleep, the first appearance of Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, and then move on to something else. But there was no moving on. The Big Sleep seized my imagination and, immediately upon finishing it, I raced through the rest of Chandler on sheer forward momentum.
What is it about The Big Sleep that so engaged me? Not the complicated plot (which I was able to follow, but only barely) but that first-person voice. Tough, tender, witty, humane—the voice of Chandler, disguised as Marlowe, is cadenced, surprisingly musical, and sets up a curious tension between a literary sensibility and the novel’s general air of depravity. It is not easy to capture in a few snippets, because each page is riddled with quotable bits, lines you want to go back and relish, or even repeat to your friends. What about the opening paragraph for setting a scene, presenting a character, developing a situation:
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 little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
There is something about this post-Depression world of Southern California—alive with grifters, drug addicts, murderers, shamuses, and dames, which creates a mythic resonance. Maybe that’s the result of all those old black-and-white movies locked inside my brain. Maybe because the nineteen-fifties Brooklyn I grew up in had more in common with Chandler’s universe than anything I’m accustomed to today. Whatever the case, for me, reading these six novels was like entering a half-remembered dream landscape—a place whose rain-soaked, neon-lit streets I felt I might previously have wandered, full of memories and dark longings.
The next presentation of “Sinister Reading: Crime, Mystery, and Detective Fiction at the New York Public Library” will be on Friday, November 5 at 2:15.
On November 19, at 2:15, I will be presenting “Out of the Blacking Factory: Charles Dickens at the New York Public Library.”