Sunday, December 25, 2011

Taking a break from Patrick O'Brian and reading Raymond Chandler.

As I have mentioned earlier, I've been reading a lot of Patrick O'Brian's novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic era, featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and the surgeon, naturalist and spy Stephen Maturin.  I would have gladly jumped straight into The Truelove after finishing The Nutmeg of Consolation, but my lovely nephew Eli asked what I wanted for Christmas and I told him I'd love the next book in the series.  (Fine lad that he is, he got me both The Truelove and The Wine-Dark Sea, both hardbound.  Thanks again, Eli.)

This left me with a week without any O'Brian, so I rummaged through my books and found The Big Sleep, the first novel by Raymond Chandler, probably more famous as the source material for the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I thought I had read it before but I was wrong.  Almost all the characters in the book make it to the film, minus a few cops and investigators who work for the D.A., but who kills whom and why are jumbled up quite a bit.

O'Brian is like a pleasant wine enjoyed with friends, while Chandler is a bottle of rye whiskey drunk alone.  Chandler is great with surfaces.  Many beginnings of scenes feel like they could be set-ups found in screenplays. O'Brian has skill with description as well, but far exceeds Chandler when it comes to the interior lives of the characters. We get inside the heads of Aubrey and Maturin in the O'Brian novels, but only inside Marlowe's head in Chandler's work, and it is a very dark place indeed.  While Maturin's character is darker than Aubrey's, compared to Marlowe, Maturin is as cheery as Bertie Wooster. Marlowe has few pleasures and alcohol is the first and foremost, though he often regrets it long before any hangover.
The Big Sleep revolves around two sisters, Carmen and Vivian Sternwood, young, pretty, rich, spoiled and involved in pornography and drugs.  In 2011,  I couldn't read about them and not think about girls named Hilton and Kardashian, and that makes the book harder to take seriously.  At least Chandler did not have their mother pimping them out.  That would be too dark even for him. 

There were a slew of movies made from Chandler's novels in the 1940s, but the production code made it impossible to tell his stories verbatim.  There was a revival of Philip Marlowe in the 1970's, including a somewhat more accurate version of The Big Sleep.  I say somewhat because it was set in London instead of Los Angeles - L.A. is a major character in Chandler's work - and Marlowe is played by Robert Mitchum, who is twenty to thirty years too old for the part.  It is also written and directed by Michael Winner, the 1970s version of Michael Bay, the king of the hacks.

Would I recommend Chandler? I still would.  His reliance on simile and metaphor may feel cliched now, but he's the original source.  It's not his fault that so many writers that followed use him as a template, because he and James M. Cain are the most readable of the early writers whose works turn into film noir.  It's an important cultural touchstone.

That said, I will have a smile on my face when I re-board Captain Aubrey's ship.  Whatever the perils they face, there is honor and duty and friendship, as well as toasted cheese and violin-cello duets.

1 comment:

namastenancy said...

I think that all of the mystery writers from this era write stories that are very dark. I remember when I read Hammett's Continental Op stories. They were so dark, negative and cynical that I couldn't ever reread them - ditto for the original Thin Man books. Still, you can't beat Hammett or Chandler for elegant writing.