Relentless rain, big sleep, and the simple art of murder

Laid low with an anvil-to-the-head case of flu this weekend, I drifted in and out of a 32-hour nap, listening to the endless rain and rolling thunder, huddled under a big eiderdown comforter I schlepped back from Portugal a few years ago and break out only when the weather gets bleak. This cozy hideout was the perfect setting in which to read Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (once I was able to prop myself up with soda crackers and ginger ale) with its relentless rain and coldblooded killers.

I've been studying hardboiled detective stories lately, dissecting the plot clockworks, jotting clues on notecards, charting characters on yellow legal pads. In the process, I've become a huge Hammett-head, practically dislocated my jaw yawning over Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and frankly laughed my head off over vintage issues of Black Mask -- the magazine that gave both Hammett and Chandler their first publishing credits. But while I read The Big Sleep yesterday, there was just me and my ginger ale, and I think I learned more from this straightforward read than from all my squinting and parsing and analyzing. There is something transporting about this book. The relentless rain. The over-the-top blondes. The hats always have some angle, whether they're cocked on top of a fashionable fairy or parked on a telephone receiver.

"If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it," Chandler wrote in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder". "The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions." (Hence the rain, maybe. It keeps the head down, the shoulders hunched, the collar up.) Okay, good to know, but more importantly, The Big Sleep corrected my mistaken belief that the detective/murder/mystery novel is all about plot. It isn't. Not when it's done right.

More from "The Simple Art of Murder":

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

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