Twitter recently pointed me in the direction of the fascinating Clothes in Books blog, on which there’s plenty to enjoy. I was drawn there by this post on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep; in turn, it reminded me of the opening of the novel, which features one of my favourite paragraphs in all of literature:
‘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.‘
This is our introduction to Philip Marlowe, a character who in the 70+ years since the novel was first published has become iconic – imitated, parodied, criticised and scorned, but never bettered. His voice comes through clear as a bell, the very essence of Chandler’s later description of his hero: ‘down these mean streets a man must go, who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.‘
Marlowe is anything but tarnished here, smartly turned out in suit and tie. It’s his voice that I hear in my head whenever I make a special effort to dress smartly for work, a job interview or a social occasion. Marlowe is also clearly not intimidated by the trappings of wealth he can see around him. The confidence in his statement ‘and I didn’t care who knew it‘ is a condition I know I should aspire to more often.
But what has really stayed with about this passage – bizarrely – is the socks. I’ve been fascinated and haunted by them since I first read The Big Sleep over 20 years ago, and it’s this telling detail that makes the paragraph memorable and surprising. I’ve not read many noir novels that give space to a hero’s underwear (although ‘Clothes in Books’ also has this cracking example from The Maltese Falcon, which I probably didn’t understand when I read it but has made me reassess the hero somewhat – not so smooth now, Samuel Spade…).
Chandler has this gift and fascination for the small detail, which he uses to define a character. But what do the socks tell us about Marlowe? Smartly dressed as he is, they remind the reader that our hero is – in Chandler’s own words – ‘a complete man and a common man.‘ This mundane detail also distinguishes him from the Sternwoods, the millionaire family Marlowe is visiting, and who seem to live on an entirely different planet from the rest of Los Angeles. The Sternwoods are far from common, and indeed increasingly incomplete, with Marlowe finding himself more and more entwined with their fates as the novel progresses.
Chandler also said that his hero must be ‘an unusual man‘, which is maybe where the clocks come in. I’ve never seen socks that look like this, and find it hard to picture them. Maybe they were all the rage in 1930s Los Angeles. If anyone can dig up a picture, I’d love to see it – they certainly sound very natty. For me, the pattern is reminiscent of alarm clocks, and getting up for work, getting washed and dressed and breakfasted and ready to go out – all of the things summarised in Marlowe’s clipped portrait of himself as ‘neat, clean, shaved and sober’. This again contrasts him with the wealthy, dissolute Sternwood daughters, many of whose troubles have stemmed from their immense wealth, and having too much time on their hands.
Lastly, the clocks also give a sense of urgency, and reinforce the idea of Marlowe as a man of action. This is picked up in the next paragraph, which also plays with the idea of Chandler’s detective having his own chivalric code. Marlowe describes a stained glass window above the door to the Sternwood mansion; it features a knight attempting to rescue a damsel tied to a tree, but having little success. ‘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.‘
In dressing so carefully, Marlowe is at least partly motivated by wanting to project a professional image to his client, General Sternwood. And yet, underneath it all, through such commonplace details as the type of socks he is wearing, Marlowe is also careful to stress just how different he is from the Sternwoods, and how much more like the rest of us. The detective’s humour and humanity shine through the whole of The Big Sleep, but the fact that the novel begins with a figure as iconic as Philip Marlowe describing his favourite pair of socks is – to me – incredibly intriguing and comforting.