Creating a Perfect Opening for a Novel—Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”

In the California literature Honors course that I am teaching at Azusa Pacific University this semester, we are studying Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, a classic of hardboiled detective fiction that features private investigator Philip Marlowe solving mysteries in a noir-ish and unforgettable Los Angeles setting.

After the students read the book, one of the first ways we studied it was simply to read out loud and analyze the first few pages. Chandler wastes no time. His opening establishes the novel’s tone and atmosphere, captures the personality of the narrator Marlowe, and propels the plot into motion. It isn’t easy to do all those things at once. If you don’t believe me, try it.

Take a look at The Big Sleep’s first two paragraphs:

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 blue 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.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. he didn’t seem to be really trying.

What information do we learn from these two paragraphs? A private detective has dressed up in a nice suit in order to call on a wealthy client who lives in a mansion.

Those are the facts, but Chandler’s words tell us much more. Why describe the outfit in such detail, even down to the socks? If you pick up a hint of sarcasm in that little bit of over-description, it is confirmed in the next sentence: “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” That declaration conveys more than the surface meaning of the words. As one of my students put it, “Someone who is usually sober doesn’t need to point out that he is sober.” The same is true for being clean and shaved. Marlowe may be revealing a few weaknesses in that sentence, but also a few strengths: he’s frank, down-to-earth, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like him already.

Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it. For example, take at “I was calling on four million dollars.” A lesser writer might have settled for something like, “I was calling on a wealthy client.” Chandler’s sentence is better than that in both tone and content. We now know how wealthy General Sternwood is (his four million is in late 1930s dollars), and more importantly, the tone indicates Marlowe is not over-awed by money.

His sarcasm toward ostentatious displays of wealth is extended in the second paragraph, when he describes the Sternwood mansion. He doesn’t need any direct comment about how gaudy he thinks the place is. The fact that the entrance doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” tells the reader plenty about Marlowe’s attitude toward the house. His commentary on the stained-glass artwork tells us as much about the unpretentious detective as it does about the questionable artistic taste of the Sternwoods.

The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.

Teaching and the Joy of Repeating Oneself

One of the most frequent questions I get asked about teaching is, don’t you get tired of teaching the same things year after year?

The answer is a resounding No. I never get tired of it. In fact, the repetition is part of what I enjoy about my job. I am in my 22nd year as a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University. Before that, I taught for five years at Olivet Nazarene University. Before that, I taught part-time for three years at Purdue University while I was a graduate student. I have been teaching non-stop since I was 21 years old. If I were going to get tired of it, I think it would have happened by now.

I teach various courses in American literature. Some of the writers I teach change from year to year, but most of them stay the same. The individual works we cover from those great writers are also sometimes different as semesters go by, as anthologies are updated and as I shift my focus in the courses. But even if the writers and works stayed exactly the same, I still wouldn’t mind.

One of the things I love about teaching a work I have taught before is that through repetition, I learn what does and does not work in the classroom. I learn which questions provoke the most fruitful discussions, which areas of inquiry lead to the richest understanding of the work, and which issues fall flat and are best avoided. I know what responses to anticipate and can be ready for where I will lead the discussion no matter what direction it heads. Each time of teaching the work becomes, in one sense, a performance that I can hone and improve.

Because I teach the same authors, I also have gathered a wealth of material about each one over the years—new articles, photos, biographical information, popular culture references, and so on. I end up with far more information than I can ever use for each writer, but that allows me to fill the class period with rich material.

The Same—But Always Different

I have been emphasizing what I enjoy about the repetition of teaching, but as any literature teacher knows, no class is ever really the same twice. No matter how much I approach a literary work in the same way I taught it before, it always comes out a little different. Last semester I taught the same class two hours in a row, and even one hour later, with a different audience, it was a whole new experience.

In this sense teaching literature is like a basketball or football game. Athletes—and fans—know that no game is ever the same. That’s why players keep playing and fans keep watching. They like the repetitive aspects of the experience, such as the fact that the football game always has four quarters, the same number of players, the same rules, and so on. But each game is its own separate drama that unfolds in unexpected ways.

People who ask whether I get tired of teaching the same literature over and over might just as well ask basketball players whether they get tired of shooting that same ball into that same hoop again and again, or baseball players whether they get tired of smacking that same ball with that same bat, or golfers whether they get sick of hitting that little white ball into hole after hole, game after game, year after year. The answer would be No, they love the game, and there is just as much suspense in the 537th game as there was in the first.

When a familiar literary work comes up in the course schedule, I enjoy it the same way I enjoy a favorite song I haven’t heard for awhile when it comes on the radio. I don’t enjoy it less because it’s familiar, I enjoy it more.

I am grateful for the repetition in teaching. The only repetitious aspect of teaching I don’t enjoy is grading papers, but that is a topic for a different post.