The Big Seep

Reading Raymond Chandler in the age of #MeToo.

Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott.
Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Harry Ranson Humanities Research Center, UT–Austin, Drew Reilly.

In April, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, writing about male authors who objectify or diminish women, marveled over the many women she knows who remain “open to verbal entrancement” by such men. As an example, she cited those who “sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler.”

Reading those words, I felt found out. Exposed.

My love for Chandler, the great noir novelist of the previous century, is as stubborn as it is foundational. It goes all the way back to my 10-year-old self stretched out on the TV room carpet, utterly in thrall to Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Later, I’d come to read all his novels and stories, falling in love with his tarnished knight hero, the sardonic and world-weary private detective Philip Marlowe. Eventually, I began what became my first novel in order to write myself into his world. My debt is incalculable.

But it’s more than a debt, one crime writer to one of her most starry forebears. This July marks the publication of the first-ever annotated edition of The Big Sleep (1939), Chandler’s first novel, with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem. I could hardly wait to get a copy. Turning its pages, I felt myself sinking into Chandler’s lushly rendered world of afternoon highballs, blackjacks hidden behind trenchcoats, and cunning women with teeth like knives. The world he paints—of longing and danger and melancholy—is the world my imagination moved into decades ago, and it’s the one I still inhabit today.

But, like most women I know, I’ve been squinting hard at my attachment to certain male writers and artists, from Jim Thompson to Norman Mailer, with problematic or troubling views of women. The word complicity knocks around my brain when I think about the way I’ve savored—even evangelized for—Chandler’s novels.

It’s true, after all, that most of Chandler’s female characters are femme fatales or dead women, party girls or Venus’ flytraps. (Anne Riordan, Marlowe’s Girl Friday in Farewell, My Lovely, is a strong exception.) Wherever he goes, Marlowe appraises most women as if they were shiny objects under glass. Often, the appraisal is a tossed-off witticism. (“It was a blonde,” Marlowe says in one of Chandler’s most famous similes. “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) Other times, it feels spiked with venom, as in the gruesome taxonomy of blondes Waldman grimly highlights in her piece.

And yet, even reading Chandler’s harsher passages, I find myself not turning away but moving closer. Trying to understand something. Am I still entranced? Even as I resist the faintly gendered connotations of the term, its suggestion of female helplessness in the face of male potency, I still feel the pull. What fascinates and compels me most about Chandler in this #MeToo moment are the ways his novels speak to our current climate. Because if you want to understand toxic white masculinity, you could learn a lot by looking at noir.

Loosely defined, noir describes the flood of dark, fatalistic books and films that emerged before, during, and especially after World War II. As scholars like Janey Place have pointed out, this was an era when many white American men felt embattled. Their livelihoods had been taken away—first by the Depression, then by the war, and then by the women who replaced them while they were off fighting. Into this climate noir flowered: Tales of white, straight men—the detective, the cop, the sap—who feel toppled from their rightful seat of power and who feel deeply threatened by women, so threatened that they render them all-powerful and blame them for all the bad things these straight white men do. Kill a guy, rob a bank—the femme fatale made me do it. These novels simmer with resentment over perceived encroachment and a desire to contain female power.

As many scholars—foremost, historian Richard Slotkin—have noted, the noir detective descends from the long tradition of white American folk heroes: the pioneer, the frontiersman, the cowboy, and other loners journeying through the wilderness, fending off enemies infringing on their freedom—or their dominance. The noir detective’s wilderness is the city; his enemies, like the enemies of his progenitors, are the “other”—meaning those who aren’t straight, aren’t white, or aren’t male. And not just the femmes fatales, but women like the aforementioned Anne Riordan, the cop’s daughter who helps Marlowe break the case in Farewell, My Lovely. She’s smart, capable, trustworthy—and Marlowe rejects her romantic interest over and over again. “There’s a nice little girl,” he says to himself, “for a guy that’s interested in a nice little girl.” Visiting her apartment, he’s soothed by the care she takes for him, preparing eggs and toast for him, serving him coffee with brandy. But he makes no advances, and when he returns home, he expresses a visceral relief at having avoided any entrapment. Standing in his own doorway, he savors its “homely smell, a smell of dust and tobacco smoke, the smell of a world where men live, and keep on living.”

The Annotated Big Sleep

Marlowe’s rejection of Anne is typical for Chandler. If most noir novels foreground direct physical confrontations with the other—be it through sex or violence—Chandler’s exhibit a profound discomfort for body-to-body contact. Marlowe is nearly celibate, avoids carrying a gun, and only shoots a man once, in The Big Sleep. After the shooting, he’s so destabilized he “laughs like a loon.” His isolation from others is profound. Forever unattached and seemingly friendless, he feels increasingly out of place in a changing Los Angeles. By the later novels, he even relocates from downtown apartments to a rental home in the Hollywood Hills in classic white-flight fashion. Alone, he broods, his loneliness curdling into resentment, even rage. His disaffection puts him on a continuum with Travis Bickle and other more dangerous self-imagined knights in urban wildernesses.

Marlowe’s alienation is at a peak in the deeply melancholy The Long Goodbye (1953), to my mind Chandler’s greatest novel. Midway through, there is a telling scene in which the detective sits alone at a hotel bar and watches “carnally” through a plate-glass window a young woman in a white sharkskin bathing suit dive into the pool. After, she joins a man with a “tan so evenly dark that he couldn’t have been anything but the hired man.” When the man pats her thigh, Marlowe tells us, the woman “opened her mouth like a firebucket and laughed. That terminated my interest in her. I couldn’t hear the laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed.”

It would be hard to find a more blatant vagina dentata image outside of a horror movie. But while its context doesn’t erase the misogyny, it does illuminate it. It’s Marlowe who’s behind the glass. He desires her, longs for her, but he’s trapped, impotent as his “rightful” place is taken by another man—a man who is suspiciously dark and explicitly jumping class lines. In this context, the description of the woman’s mouth is no longer merely an author’s casual misogyny. Instead, it’s a window into a culture writ large, the pulleys and levers behind the besieged white masculinity we’re now witnessing on the national stage every day. To paraphrase another noir icon, Dashiell Hammett, it’s like someone’s “taken the lid off” to “let us see the works.” Who are we not to look?

The writers we love speak to us on subterranean levels we seldom understand. They speak to conflicts within ourselves. And, in moments of reckoning like this one, they force us to look at ourselves. I know I’m looking. I’m deep in the muck, but I’m looking. Chandler is a mystery to solve, my mystery. The clues are there in the novels—the clues behind a pervasive and sometimes deadly masculinity—and my investigation is ongoing, on the page and elsewhere.

So I’m not giving up on Chandler. The fact is, I don’t want to. I’m drawn to him because the world he brings to life so vividly is a world I understand, especially now. It’s a world of peril, a troubled and troubling place where it feels harder and harder to make things right.

It’s fitting, then, that one of Chandler’s ongoing fixations, and one of the grand themes of noir, is reckoning with one’s own complicity. At the end of The Big Sleep, guns have been fired, lives lost, justice eluded. Marlowe has covered up crimes and committed a few of his own, including murder. Meanwhile, his client—the rich white tycoon who set all these crimes in motion—sleeps soundly in his canopied bed. High on the hill, his mouth “tight and bloodless,” he remains untouched by the carnage he’s wrought.

In the final paragraphs, Marlowe turns a hard gaze upon himself. All this ugliness happened on his watch. He let it happen. Sometimes he made it happen.

“Me,” he tells us, “I was part of the nastiness now.”

The Annotated Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.