And now a look at structural similarities between detective fiction and a work of ancient poetry. In his essay The Study of Literary Formulas, John G. Cawelti proposes four "interrelated hypotheses about the dialectic between formulaic literature and the culture that produces and enjoys it." To sum up quickly, Cawelti asserts that formulaic stories, firstly, confirm existing conventional views in a culture; secondly, they present us with an individual in conflict with the convention, which makes for a plot of conflict leading to resolution of the conflict and reinforcement of the convention; thirdly, formulaic stories enable the reader to enter the realm of fantasy, vicariously, beyond the normal boundaries of what is allowable, but contained within the short space of the story's control; and lastly, literary formulas preserve the capacity of a culture to integrate new elements and changes into the mostly unchanging, conservative structure of its stories. These four points are general enough to precipitate a constructive comparison between works quite dissimilar. Still, it is enlightening to contemplate the similar roles such works play within their cultures, and then to look closer at what the works have in common across a gulf, in this case, of 2700 years.
"Formula" (the first type) may mean "a conventional way of treating some specific thing or person," but it may also refer to common plots (the second type), including the use of myths to "support and give deeper meaning to action." For writers of all kinds the first type, a conventional way of treating the material, has broad and specific applications, for even when we are not constructing plots (as in the second type), we are always subject to the conventions of communication, and their rhetorical schemes. Thus rhythmical devices, figures of speech and types of imagery fall under treatment of material. Whether in a business letter, editorial, essay, speech, elegy, or inaugural address, the writer molds his effort to the decorum of the occasion. A strong argument can be made that genres are extensions of actual occasions and rituals, that if we look back far enough, most conventions evolved out of their events, such as toasts at dinner, love poems for courtship, epithalamia for marriages, elegies for the occasion of death, and so on. The second type of formula has to do with how the plot functions, and one may refer back to the four tenets of formulaic literature to get an idea.
The Odyssey is a highly formulaic work on the border between oral and written poetry, employing systematic use of epithets, similes, dactylic hexameter as the fundamental line unit, leitmotifs, repetition, and so on. It employs both types, making use of traditional material, with additional elements of the new and fantastic, in the formation of its plot. For instance, the tradition of the "nostoi" or "returns" of the heroes from Troy was central to the cultural identity of the Greeks, and Homer's work does not stray from this foundation. Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep also works with both aspects of formula, both conventional treatment of characters and things, including epithets and similes, and conventional plot development. There are characters and landscapes quite familiar to us, which is how we like it, but also fantastic elements of the unknown integrated into the story, providing the slight uneasiness essential to our involvement in the story. For example, the Greeks were exploring new areas of the Mediterranean, looking outward to new wonders, while struggling to preserve an older continuity. And so do we meet with many strange creatures from the outskirts in the Los Angeles of the thirties of this century, a town changing into a big city, with big city problems. We meet equivalents of the Cyclops.
Let us begin by looking at one element of the first type (treatment of the thing) essential to both texts: the use of similes. Readers of Homer will be familiar with many. They may be implied similes, without like or as, or they may be similes hinged upon the word "so." The author grasps for images familiar to his readers from the natural world, often using images of weather and animals to vivify the portrayal. For instance, in chapter V of the Odyssey, Odysseus is tossed from his raft and forced to swim towards shore. The shore he reaches is treacherous though, unswimmable, and he may be crushed by the surf. Thus he is forced to hold on to a jagged rock with his bare hands. What kind of image does Homer choose?
he gripped a rock-ledge with both hands in passing
and held on, groaning, as the surge went by,
to keep clear of its breaking. Then the backwash
hit him, ripping him under and far out.
An octopus, when you drag one from his chamber,
comes up with suckers full of tiny stones:
Odysseus left the skin of his great hands
torn on that rock-ledge as the wave submerged him.
The octopus was familiar to the Greek people, a common sight even. The same choice would not be as appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with the sea and sea creatures. In the same chapter Hermes is compared to a gull, and Odysseus to a fresh brand tucked in a bed of embers. To the eyes and ears of New Haven schoolchildren, the gull is familiar, but not the brand. When Odysseus' raft is destroyed we read:
A gust of wind, hitting a pile of chaff,
will scatter all the parched stuff far and wide;
just so, when this gigantic billow struck
the boat's big timbers flew apart. Odysseus
clung to a single beam, like a jockey riding…"
Images of harvest wheat are more familiar, to most students, from the Bible's figures than they are from actual bundles seen at harvest time. This was not always the case. But Homer's imagery not only relies on familiar animals and climates, but geography. The audience, we may assume, was familiar enough with their own region to have a common store of reference, while increasingly familiar with the fantastic regions, such as Egypt, just beyond their borders. The Big Sleep also stands riddled with similes reliant upon imagery familiar to its audience, with exotic elements woven in. Americans in particular can savour many references to their cultural landscape. For instance, in the succession of no more than a handful of pages we find three.
First, General Sternwood says he used to drink brandy. "I used to like mine with champagne. The champagne as cold as Valley Forge and about a third of a glass of brandy." Valley Forge, Pennsylvania is a part of the American cultural landscape, a mythical place where General Washington's men endured a harsh winter, as we all know. Or do we? And what of it if we do? The Man making the statement is a General himself, a symbol of dying propriety, a Laertes whose Odysseus does not return, left instead with untamable daughters. Our protagonist takes a liking to the man, his withering dignity, just as the General took a liking to Regan, who had many war stories to share. The simile makes a point about the man, but also makes an expressionistic stroke for the tone of the book, one of sentimental preoccupation with the decline of better things. Much like the Odyssey, The Big Sleep is built upon the longing for a continuity and connection with a grander, yet simpler, heroic past. Those with the eyes of old soldiers seek each other out to share their stories. There is a code of respect which, if not for those few left aware of it, would vanish from the earth.
Just a paragraph later Marlowe responds in kind. They are sitting in a greenhouse full of orchids. It is very warm: "I stood up and peeled off my coat and got a handkerchief out and mopped my face and neck and the backs of my wrists. St. Louis in August had nothing on that place." One begins to sense a thoughtful selection of appropriate images from across the United States. Having been to St. Louis in August, one knows the temperature in triple digits and the humidity unbearable. Even if the average American reader for whom this story was intended has not been to St. Louis in August, he feels the connection to a part of his own land, a land both familiar and strange, and registers the landscape as part of an assumed national identity, part of himself and including himself.
Then again in the same conversation, a few pages later, Chandler reaches for another section of the country: "…the heat, which made me feel like a New England boiled dinner, didn't seem to make him (the General) even warm." A New England boiled dinner, to my recollection, means lobster by the coast, or may also refer to stewed beef, cabbage, potatoes and so on. The stodgy New Englander may cherish the image, though I don't imagine anyone stodgy reading Chandler. Once again, one need not have eaten a New England boiled dinner, one may even have been raised on king crab in Bremerton, or crawfish in Lafayette, but the effect remains nearly the same. Marlowe, our cliché-ridden first person, likes to hear himself sound funny, off the cuff, uncanny, but the images which work may even go so far as to enrich the claim it has on our love of the familiar cultural emanations, garish or otherwise, of our corrupting land. Chandler's Los Angeles is Ithaka without the hope of an Odysseus, as the hard-boiled, but soft and syrupy Marlowe reminds us, commenting on the stained glass narrative in the Sternwood house. It is a town, but it is a land and it is a people, somehow we are wished to consider. Then consider Odysseus introducing himself to Nausikaa with flattering speech. He tells her:
Never have I laid eyes on equal beauty
in man or woman. I am hushed indeed.
So fair, one time, I thought a young palm tree
at Delos near the altar of Apollo-
I had troops under me when I was there
on the sea rout that later brought me grief-
but that slim palm tree filled my heart with wonder:
never came shoot from earth so beautiful.
So now, my lady, I stand in awe…
Certainly Odysseus accomplishes a great deal through his words to the young princess. The reference to Delos and Apollo shows Odysseus is a man who has traveled much, as a man aware of the gods, a man versed in customs. Delos was a fixture on the Greek spiritual and geographical landscape needing no explanation to the audience, home to a great cult site of Apollo, familiar from both stories and eye-witness accounts.
Henry Fielding dubbed the Odyssey "the eatingest epic," and indeed, much eating goes on. But since the Odyssey, as the author of On the Sublime called it, is a comedy of manners, this should be no surprise. Eating offers the writer a great occasion for indulgence in formula; after all, when was the last day you did not sit down to eat, and when you ate, ate only alone, without conversation, or ritual indulgence in thanks, a toast, & cheer? The way people go about this fundamental act tells a great deal about them. Robert B. Parker even goes so far as to begin Looking for Rachel Wallace in a restaurant. Thus, like a microcosmic epitome of formulaic construction, the meal's conventional codes serve as grounds for distinction by contrast. For instance, in our very first look at Odysseus' manor, in the first chapter of the Odyssey, the poet describes the serving of a meal. This description, or at least the bulk of it, recurs repeatedly in the story that follows:
brought them a silver finger bowl and filled it
out of a beautiful spouting golden jug,
then drew a polished table to their side.
The larder mistress with her tray came by
and served them generously.
And a few lines later occurs a description which is repeated no less than eleven times:
Now they laid hands upon the ready feast
and thought of nothing more. Not till desire
for food and drink had left them were they mindful
of dance and song, that are the grace of feasting."
The wedding meals and the meals of welcome for strangers, the daily meals, and the meals that follow holy sacrifice: we never stray too far from the diurnal necessities, though the examples range from the lavish banquet in a palace to the humble leftovers in a cabin. These common descriptions serve as stations or landmarks against which we may weigh the behavior of individual characters. So we have identical introductions of the food in the house of Odysseus with the suitors, and in the house of Menelaos. They shed light on each other, and we gain insight by contrast. Menelaos' house is in order, as a house should be, and the meal is conducted in such a way as is fit for a king and a wedding day. The suitors, on the other hand, are careless debauchees and the estate of Odysseus is out of order in his absence. We notice very early in the first chapter the rudeness of the suitors in comparison to the well-mannered, if not confident, welcome extended by Telemakhos to Mentes, the disguised Athena.
Of course the Odyssey is also about the absence of meals, and times of hunger in between. Odysseus is unapologetic about his appetite after long hunger. The Big Sleep concerns itself less with eating, though there are meals, than imagining the consequences of coffee and whisky showered on an empty stomach. The formulaic equivalent to Homer's food would have to be the rituals and codes of drinking and smoking, smoking in particular. In fact, Chandler leans heavily on the use of smoking to propel his story and portray his characters. The General finds in the smell of tobacco a kind of Proustian drift, and each smoker after has his own type of smoke and approach to smoking it.
When first meeting Vivian Regan Marlowe self-consciously executes a maneuver well rehearsed in American cinema: "I snicked a match on my thumbnail and for once it lit. I puffed smoke into the air and waited." The need to look cool, if not feel cool, is of great concern, and nothing draws it out more dramatically than the device of smoking. Chandler's characters smoke with patience and impatience, with calm assurance and without it, hoping to recover it through the act of smoking. Marlowe plays the antagonist to Agnes at Geiger's shop by getting comfortable in a chair and lighting up, so as to show he can wait as long as it takes. Smoking bears out certain immediate understandings, as though through the rehearsal of lighting up, two people can share an unspoken code. Consider Marlowe lighting the smoke of the woman at the legitimate bookstore down the street from Geiger's: "She reached for a pack of cigarettes and shook one loose and reached for it with her lips. I held a match for her. She thanked me, leaned back again and regarded me through smoke… She blew a soft gray smoke ring and poked her finger through. It came to pieces in frail wisps. She spoke smoothly, indifferently…" She helps him with information, smoking while she thinks, and their exchange has a vague flirtation to it. Actually, the act of smoking is at many times in this novel synonymous with the act of thinking. On the next page Marlowe narrates: "I sat there and poisoned myself with cigarette smoke and listened to the rain and thought about it."
Each character has his or her own particular kind of smoke. Ohls, the DA man friendly with Marlowe, "stood up and pocketed a flat tin of toy cigars called Entractes, jiggled the one in his mouth up and down and looked at me carefully along his nose, with his head thrown back." Chandler relies quite heavily on smoking to convey states of mind. As Ohls asks questions at the crime scene, he "twitched his little cigar like a cigarette," the movement of one trying to figure something out. By giving him tiny cigars, Chandler paints him as a man of some authority, but of measurably less than, say, the DA himself, Taggart Wilde, whose house smells of "good cigar smoke," and who smokes a "dappled thin cigar" while sipping black coffee. Captain Gregory, the cop at the Missing Persons Bureau, smokes a briar, a pipe, which he is always tapping, packing and puffing on, ritualistically, the way a meditative desk cop would if kept inside with paperwork. His habit is metonymy: pipe smoking equals deeper thought. Mrs. Regan, a lady of wealth, picks a cigarette "out of a French enamel case." And Eddie Mars, the man whose every feature is gray, a smoother sort of thug, has "monogrammed cigarettes."
Marlowe the detective can smoke in front of people to show that he is going nowhere, and thus makes of himself a menacing presence. At Brody's apartment, for instance: "…the man in new overalls was grunting hard as he stacked heavy boxes… I stood beside him and lit a cigarette and watched him. He didn't like my watching him." When interrogated by Eddie Mars Marlowe uses the cigarette to show he is unaffected, wry and deadpan: "It was a good guess but I wasn't going to let him know it. I lit a cigarette and blew the match out and flicked it at the glass eye of the totem pole." A gesture meant to show he is unintimidated, that he couldn't care less. Joseph Brody responds in a similar way to Marlowe's appearance at his door: "Nothing in the man's face changed that I could see. He brought a cigarette from behind the door and tucked it between his lips and drew a little smoke from it. The smoke came towards me in a lazy contemptuous puff and behind it words in a cool, unhurried voice that had no more inflection than the voice of a faro dealer." Faro is a game of cards, cards being, aside from drinking and smoking, the other classic American all-purpose metaphor.
By bringing together a room full of smokers at once, the author can create a kind of smoking counterpoint, wherein we may contrast one character's method with another's as reflective of the involvement or detachment of each: "Wilde waved his cigar… (he) looked at what I gave him, puffing gently at his cigar. Ohls lit one of his own toy cigars and blew smoke peacefully at the ceiling." And as much as Marlowe uses his own smoking habit as a strategic tool, as a prop and a disguise, the characters he would control are made to look unsteady by how they manage to smoke under pressure. First Brody's cigarette is "balanced on his lower lip," but when Marlowe intimidates him successfully, the cool balance is disturbed: "His cigarette jerked and dropped ash on his vest," then "his cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring." Marlowe eventually meets Harry Jones, a man whom he later develops a sentimental attachment to, and uses what he knows to make Jones feel uncomfortable: "His face turned white as paper when I mentioned Eddie Mars. His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to the corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there."
The formulaic recurrence of the ritual of smoking contributes to the vaguely expressionistic flavour of the work. By expressionistic, I mean Chandler paints with broad strokes; though he provides plenty of details, these details yield no more than a comic strip's depth, a low, even crass stylization dependent upon hyperbole and caricature. Consider the attention paid to clothes, or the bizarre exactitude with which he describes interiors, as though he were a decorator. Mrs. Regan's room is the epitome: "…the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. There were full-length mirrors and crystal doodads all over the place. The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out." The "all over the place" is signature hackwork, the lazy colloquialism. Mrs. Regan's beauty is given another paragraph. The atmosphere he creates is of an exaggerated, but extremely conventional sort. Atmospheres for the first impressions of heroines are vital to Chandler's approach. The first look at Eddie Mars' wife is even surreal: "She was so platinumed that her hair shown like a silver fruit bowl (a wig)… She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow… Her eyes were the blue of mountain lakes… 'How do you feel?' It was a smooth silvery voice that matched her hair. It had a tiny tinkle in it, like bells in a doll's house. I thought that was silly as soon as I thought of it." Here the self-conscious Marlowe plays the improvisator, and we realize that most of the cartoonish images, the base, pop similes and metaphors, we should believe, are products of the tired mind of a veteran sentimentalist, driven on, though impecuniously, towards truth and justice.
Eddie Mars, the man entirely in gray, and his lackey Canino, the man entirely in brown, may just as well epitomize the expressionistic method. Even Canino's socks and car are brown. Quicker to the point, recall our narrator's descriptions of the eyes of each character. Much like noses or bald heads, eyes, in Chandler's narrative, are handed down from generation to generation: the Sternwoods, being of noble stock, have dark black eyes of great depth and power. It is the "slaty" colored craziness and absence in Carmen's eyes that alerts us to her problematic nature. These bold colors actually say little, objectively, about the characters. Rather, the broad strokes trace motifs, much like the weather. Other than the importance the author gives them, assuming they tell us something about Marlowe or the character he describes, these colorful looks are random, what art critics would call "non-naturalistic." Very few people have ever had a good look at gray eyes, yet many of Chandler's characters have them. Of course Homer's Athena has eyes that have been translated, traditionally, as gray. But do gray eyes exist at all? You might as well ask Gauguin why he painted the grass red. With Gauguin, it will have to do with the emotional intensity of the color, but is not always answerable. With Chandler, if one can see beyond the cloying, hackneyed dust, there may be an emotional reason, or perhaps not. The internal logic is not allegorical, rather, ornamental. But may it also be, as with Homer's "wine-dark sea," a connection to the living oral tradition, a phrase so old that the original inspiration is far behind, and the author has simply carried on its use?
The characters in Homer's epic are rarely separated from their epithets, and if they are, the epithets take the place of their names. Much as in the film Jaws, where the familiar music marks the presence of the fiendish shark, so the epithets of certain characters or things or events come to serve even as leitmotifs. A good writer will give certain characters idiosyncrasies, which make them instantly recognizable. Just to mention one funny example: the lover of Geiger, the younger boy, is not named so much as he is recognized by two trademarks. He is the guy in the "jerkin" who never says anything but "Go f___ yourself." This is repeated so often as to make for several offhand jokes, but none is so witty as when the officer watching him comes into the room. When asked if the boy has said anything, the answer is: "'He made a suggestion,' the copper said and spat. 'I'm letting it ride.'" In other words, he told him he could "go f___ himself." It is, indeed, a suggestion. The euphemism is particularly funny to us by then, having heard the "suggestion" so many times already.
Formulas of the second type have to do with certain plots that get repeated again and again in a particular culture. The standards and expectations of a particular genre may be carried from one culture to another, as with epic and tragedy, but each new culture, against the standard of the ages, will reveal its own particular take. Then there are plots that integrate elements from older traditions, but go on to create their own genre. For instance, the Odyssey itself is actually a hybrid, having elements of what would later become the romance; the romance contains the basic structure of later genres such as the western, and, in many cases, detective fiction. Raymond Chandler's novel, set in Hollywood and the rest of Los Angeles, grew up in a young town that was beginning to feel its age. The juxtaposition of heroes of a higher quality, from the mythical past, with the everyday surroundings of Ithaka reflects the Odyssey's reverential tone towards that past. Much as the topos of "ubi sunt" or "where are they?" the whole story meditates on the days that are no more, those came before who have gone away. The old men lament that the day of well-behaved, respectful young men has been replaced by the day of insolent hotheads, stuck in that mode, thinking always on better days. Into this low state of affairs returns the hero. But Chandler, whose story is also set in such a mode of sentimentality, though on a dramatically lower plane, does not supply us with a hero as much as a self-conscious working man, a man with experience who knows the codes of a particular underworld.
What is the plot of The Big Sleep? Of more interest than the actual main plot and its investigation is the sentimental portrait of Los Angeles, and everyday symbols of American loneliness, like the paintings of Edward Hopper: full of color, but still, sad and burdened with commonplaces. The melancholy rises to the surface in descriptions of the Sternwood oil fields, or at that most mythical of spots, the service station:
"Ten blocks of that, winding down curved rain-swept streets, under the steady drip of trees, past lighted windows in big houses in ghostly enormous grounds, vague clusters of eaves and gables and lighted windows high on the hillside, remote and inaccessible, like witch houses in a forest. I came out at a service station glaring with wasted light, where a bored attendant in a white cap and a dark blue windbreaker sat hunched on a stool, inside the steamed glass, reading a paper."
This is the epitome of the automobile culture which, as we now know, was to make further inroads in the decades that followed, to the point where all is now gobbled up in the LA we know. As we hear at points in the text: "This is a big town now, Eddie. Some very tough people have checked in here lately. The penalty of growth." And later, Wilde, the DA saying: "…you know how it is. This is a big city now."
This discussion of formulas is by no means complete, but within the space allotted may provoke useful comparisons between works similarly dissimilar.