I Do My Thinking Myself: The Modernist Detective and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. Reprint, London: Penguin, 2014.

Philip Marlowe takes a case for an old general by the name of Sternwood. A rich man, Sternwood has two daughters who run wild. He has received some IOUs—a spot of blackmail for one of the daughters (Carmen)—and wants Marlowe to look into it. As Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood mansion, the general’s other daughter, Vivian (Regan) calls him in to ask if he has been asked to find her estranged husband, who departed suddenly not long ago. He hasn’t, but he will before he gets out of the mess he’s just walked into.

The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel, furnishes a complex and twisty plot in which bad guys and good guys alike go down like dominoes. A woman’s ex-lover shoots a man who is photographing said woman in the nude and steals the photo plate, only to have it taken from him. The thief gets killed by the dead photographer’s lover; then the thief’s girlfriend tries to sell some information about the vanished husband’s ex-lover and winds up getting her intermediary killed by the ex-lover’s bodyguard . . . there’s more, but maybe I’ve made my point. At every turn, wisps of truth float through Marlowe’s fingers as he tries to figure out who knows what and who’s lying to him (hint: it’s almost everyone).

The book is set quite firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Prohibition is over and so, largely, is the recession; the oil derricks[1], which were responsible for putting the city on the map, are beginning to lose their primacy on the landscape, and the place is starting to grow rapidly. Not every detail of the book holds up well by modern standards. For example, the amount of fuss Marlowe kicks up about some pornographic books seems silly by the standards of the internet. A young woman being photographed nude is potentially a major scandal, whereas today it can make someone’s career. There’s a gay character who isn’t treated very well (although to be fair, when Marlowe chews him out, he has just murdered a man in front of Marlowe), and there’s a somewhat perplexing racial slur.[2] In addition, the question of who killed the chauffeur is famously left unresolved—however, I have to admit that had I not read an anecdote in which Chandler confessed to not knowing either, I likely wouldn’t have noticed that detail. Throughout, if these petty complaints ever threaten to overwhelm the story, Chandler throws in another beautifully crafted line to make the reader forget her complaints—although calling them lines fails to acknowledge how masterful his prose is in sum, how well-chosen each word is.

At the end of the book, we leave Marlowe in a bar in something of a moral quandary. Midway through the book, he mentions a chess board in his room: “There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight. . . . 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” (168–170). By the final pages, Marlowe has taken over the role of the knight, and in doing so proved himself correct. He cannot apprehend the murderer or even reveal the location of the murdered man’s body lest he give the game away. All his attempts to protect the general and his daughters have backed him into a corner. And so he drinks and ruminates fatalistically on death, “the big sleep” (250). This paralysis is intentional. In effect, Chandler is producing a treatise on the modernist detective novel, and does as effective a job in defining it as he does in his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.”

The Victorian detective, epitomized by Sherlock Holmes, is a figure of romanticized panopticism. No matter how grave or petty a crime is, no matter how complex, Holmes reassures us that the criminal will be found. Marlowe, in his own words, is not Sherlock Holmes: “I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don’t know much about cops. It’s not things like that they overlook if they overlook anything” (131). Later he adds, “I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whisky, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it: I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of [gangsters]. I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much” (247–248). Unlike the comparatively aloofness of earlier detectives (such as the aforementioned Holmes; Philo Vance, who is also namechecked by Marlowe; or C. Auguste Dupin) who never get their hands dirty, Marlowe cares about his cases and spends his time sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He also reflects on the process of detection and how it has been represented to his clients.[3] The world has changed a lot since 1893; on the eve of the second World War, there are no reassurances to be found.

Ultimately I don’t think this is Chandler’s greatest novel—I’d give that accolade to The Long Goodbye—but don’t let that hold you back from reading it. Chandler, even on a bad day, is better than most contemporary writers could ever hope to be.

[1] Mentioned recently on Marketplace.

[2] Perplexing in that I’ve never seen an expression like that used. It was clear from context that it was slightly derogatory in some way.

[3] If the modernist detective novel is characterized by a greater degree of self-reflection, a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, and yet a feeling of futility or of being trapped by the situation in which one finds oneself, the postmodern detective novel is characterized by a broadening of focus in an attempt to solve crimes by looking at the ills of the society that produced the criminal, or by a sense that crimes are in some sense unsolvable. I’ll get back to you about the post-postmodern (i.e., contemporary) detective novel.

Em oi! #404: Why They Don’t Do Reality TV Shows about Writers


Oh my G-d, that sofa. If I have to draw it again, I don’t know, I’ll go crazy.

We’ll file this under PN1992.8 R43 L86 2014, for Drama–Broadcasting–Television broadcasts–Special topics–Other special topics, A-Z–Reality programs.

I…had originally planned to do a chart of like all the races I did this year, and talk about how much I ran and all that kind of thing, but then I was struck by the thought that no one cares. Basically it’s something I’ve been dwelling on as I try to figure out what I want to sign up for next year. A lot of popular races tend to sell out early, and race directors of course like this and encourage people to register early by offering lower fees if you do so. One race that I do every year sold out in less than seven hours.

So I’ve been trying to figure out what might be a good goal for next year. As a runner, there are basically two ways to go: faster or farther.

I will say now that I suffer from some–let’s call it optimism about my running abilities. I don’t often fail at tasks I set myself, and even when I do, you know, cross the finish line in tears (Marine Corps in 2009) or limping/bleeding (Dances with Dirt 2013), I usually count it as a win because, you know, I finished! Even the triathlon in which I had a panic attack during the swim and took so long finishing the rest of the race that B actually thought I might have drowned and was going to look for me in the medical tent when I finally crossed the finish line counts, to some extent, as a win.

All this comes to the fact that recently, I’ve been doing some speed work. Nothing too big–one week I did 5×400, then the next week 4×800, then this past Thursday 3×1200. My 800s were at an average pace of 3:22. According to one marathon time-predicting test, called the Yasso 800, if you want to run a marathon in x hours:y minutes, you should work up to a set of 10×800 where your time is x minutes:y seconds–in other words, 10×800 at 3:22 could predict a 3:22 :xx marathon. I thought about this and figured that even if I took a bunch of extra time on the second half, I could still run a 3:30:xx, which I think would be a Boston qualifier for me. I am of course ignoring a few key facts, like:

  1. I did 4×800, not ten, and my times were definitely dropping by the last one.
  2. This would require me to run an 8:01 min/mi for 26.2 miles. My single fastest race last year was 10 miles in 1:21:46, an 8:11 min/mi pace. There is, it turns out, a huge world of different between an 8:11 and an 8:01.
  3. I ran that race in April.
  4. Also, every time I have tried to do serious speed work, which is the only way to get faster, I have gotten hurt. In fact, even with the 3×1200, my foot was starting to act up.

I actually am so optimistic that I couldn’t convince myself that this was totally out of the question–I had to instead convince myself that Boston is bourgeois and I don’t really want to do it.[1]

So that leaves farther. You can’t have followed this blog for long without realizing that I really enjoy ultrarunning as a sport, and that I often think farther is better. I’ve run an average of 45 miles/week this year, despite being off several weeks with various injuries, and managed to somehow do 61 miles on a week that I was “cutting back” before a marathon. Because I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I finished my last 50K, I thought: Why not do a 100K?

There are actually plenty of good answers to this pro or con, depending on how much you feel like running around in the woods for ten hours is a good time. But the major con is injury. Specifically, the problem is that I have recurring injuries, and the cause often seems to be running above 20 miles in one run. You can run a marathon off a long run of 18 miles, even a 50K, but I’m going to guess it will be hard to do a 100K on that kind of training.[2]

Bring it all back home, Lupton–what’s your plan? To be honest, I have decided that what I really need is a year of not getting hurt. So I’m going to take it pretty easy–I’m planning to do the Ice Age trail half marathon in May, and then the Powerman in Kenosha in June, and then see where I’m at. If things are feeling good in the first half of the year, I may try to jump into a marathon or 50K, like the Trailbreaker or the Mad City 50K, both of which are small enough that I should be able to make the decision last-minute. And then after June…I don’t know. I’m not going to plan that far ahead right now. I know lots of people who have super impressive plans for next year; I just have to admit that’s not going to be me this year.

Next time, hopefully I’ll have something to write that’s not about running, like more on Ulysses or something. Wouldn’t that be fun? ‘Cause seriously.

[1] Perhaps the most fantastically snobbish statement I’ve ever made. Hilarious too, because by many (economic) measures, I’m kind of bourgeois as well…

[2] For those who might be somehow curious: There’s actually very little research on what constitutes a good training plan for a 100K (because so few runners do them), and most plans that are available are kind of based on “this worked for me” strategies.

Em oi! #403: Stress


A little more surreal than we typically go, with I guess the exception of some of the older strips like this one:
One of my favorite early comics.

I was going to write something mildly amusing about stress here, but then Daniel introduced me to Numberwang and I sort of figured “why bother?” No, that’s not right… uh…This started when I had to edit about 320 pages in a week (actually closer to 450 over two weeks, since there were two distinct projects). That kind of speed is not my favorite, since I am pretty meticulous in my editing and like to have a chance to look at things really closely, and when you have to edit fifty-ish pages per day, you often can’t do that.

Life has been as usual a series of ups and downs here. I ran my last race of the season, the Burbee Derby, on Thanksgiving. It was my slowest 10K of the year at 52:34 (the fastest was the 50 Furlong World Championships at 50:55; of course, 50 furlongs is actually 6.25 miles, but I measured the Burbee course at 6.3). I feel both happy to not have any more commitments until New Years and a little sad not to be preparing for any major races. Still, I’m committed to sitting on my tuchas and eating ice cream caramel cookie crunch gelato for a while.

Other events: The dishwasher developed (at some point, we’re not sure when) a small leak that eventually ate through the basement ceiling. Lucky for us, it has been far easier to fix than we ever anticipated. And I have more editing projects, though less urgent than the one I handed in last week.

Finally, NaNoWriMo ended and I lost, having written just under 25K words in the month of November. People actually ask with some frequency if I do NaNo, and I hate having to admit that I have won once in the ten years or something I’ve been doing it. Come to think of it, I may have cheated that year and worked on a novel-in-progress. So that would be possibly zero times I have managed to write a novel in a month. And I am an actual legit published author! So congrats to those who won, and for those who didn’t–you can still be writers, it’s okay. (Side note: I see that suddenly GUD is apparently gearing up to publish their Spring 2014 issue sometime…maybe in early 2015 by the look of their last blog entry? Given that their last published issue was actually the one I was in, if they manage to pull off another issue I will be able to feel like I didn’t have a hand in killing them somehow. So, um, good luck, guys?)

(Side side note: Despite having actually been published by GUD and having signed a contract with them and everything, I actually have almost no idea who works there, with whom I corresponded, the behind-the-scenes processes, none of that. I corresponded primarily with someone who I somewhat believed was using a pseudonym, and xe was not especially verbose or interested in offering explanations. Oh well.)

I’m still trying to come up with time to think semi-rationally about what to run next year. I have been mostly thinking of 10K to half marathon-length races, because I would like to see if I can improve my speed and maybe even place at the half marathon distance (the only distance from 5K to 50K that I have never placed in the top five at). Or I could go crazy and do a 100K or something. I have heard there’s a plan for a 100K on 50 miles per week, which is basically what I do now. But I’d guess it wants at least a few runs in the 25 to 30 mile range before the race, and I don’t think I can handle that without injury right now. So maybe shorter races it is. Or maybe it’s time to overcome my fear of open water swimming and my crappy biking and do a real non-pool swim tri, since my oly this summer went quite well. Or maybe a couple of duathlons? There are too many choices. I’m going to go sleep on it.

Let’s file Em oi! #403 under BF575 S75 L86 2014, for Psychology–Affection. Feeling. Emotion–Emotion–Special forms of emotion, etc., A-Z–Stress. Don’t ask me what “special forms of emotion” are; sometimes LC speaks to us in mysterious ways. Em oi! #49 can be filed under G557 L86 2007 (since it never got an LCC number originally, I hadn’t started library school yet when it was drawn!), which stands for Geography (general)–Mysterious disappearances, triangles of death, etc.–General works. That is a much more imaginative tag than I gave LCC credit for; I have underestimated them and for that I am sorry.