Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep sets the standard for humour against which I measure other similar hard-boiled detective novels. In the second paragraph of the book, Chandler uses a number of figures to achieve his signature deadpan style. His private detective and first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe, is visiting a wealthy client, Mr Sternwood. Marlowe describes the place.
Quote: 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.
If you’re curious about the first paragraph of the book, I discuss it in No One Knows About the Dark Blue Clocks.
Whilst the genre was already replete with humour before he started writing, Chandler managed to give Marlowe imaginative, literary metaphors and an eye for the amusing, making him both a pulp-fiction hero and poet of droll wit. Metaphors I discussed last week; this week is about humour.
(By the way, droll, the adjective, can be thought of as an auto-antonym, or Janus-word, meaning both intentionally and unintentionally amusing in a quirky, queer way.)
What makes the Quote quiver?
Imagery, innuendo, imaginative irony.
The description of the Quote is vivid: elephants, knight and lady, tree and hair, but it’s also rather plainly put (no fancy metaphors), except for a few choice words and phrases. Those make all the difference.
The general advice when writing any description is to reach for words, then discard them, reach again, discard again, and only write down what you come up with on a third or fourth attempt. What you reach for first is a cliché, second, a worn phrase, and only on later iterations can you hope for something innovative—or so the reasoning goes.
A fresh description doesn’t have to be original from beginning to end, it sometimes needs one word or one phrase that will catch the reader’s attention, that will illuminate the rest of the paragraph, that will prop up the rote writing, that will spice up the letter stew; put differently, according to your metaphor of choice, the description needs a snag, a star, a strut, or a spice word. Each source prefers its own slant on the concept of magical sparks sprinkled throughout a text, and its own terminology. In keeping with this tradition, I choose a name that suits me:
quoin words or simply quoins.
Historically, the word is derived from coin; it meant archway keystone amongst other things; today its chief meaning is cornerstone, especial if made of a material or decoration differing from that of the rest of the wall. (Definitions from the OED.)
Quoins are the quirks in the text, the bits that make you pause, they are the unusual and the funny, the handshake that seals the meaning, the hit in the head that you didn’t see coming, or that extra gesture that makes you like or dislike someone. (If you’re only learning a language then most words are the quoins of nightmares, and you’re in trouble.)
Quoins are attention grabbers.
Depending on the context and purpose of the writing, quoins can either be fundamental to a text, so much so that the text collapses without them, or be the fundamental ornament of the text, so that if removed, the text survives at the cost of appearing defaced.
Picking out a quoin is a matter of eye and ear, history and heart—it relies explicitly on the reader’s sensitivity to written and spoken language, and implicitly on the reader’s experiences with language & life (nurture) and on the reader’s sensibilities (nature)—therefore, what I call a quoin, you may not. And, therefore, what I consider to be a collapsed or defaced text once certain quoins are removed, you may not.
Recognising a quoin can help you identify linguistic tropes like metaphor, metonymy, meiosis, etc (less so linguistic schemes like schemes of balance, omission, or repetition). It can do much more too, but I leave that for another post.
Back to the Quote.
Here are the quoins in the Quote: Indian, dark, convenient, sociable, not getting anywhere, He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Delete the Indian and it’s not as concrete an image. Delete the dark and the knight becomes more ordinary, in his prototypical shiny, white armour. Delete convenient and the innuendo is missing, delete sociable and you’ve deleted a chuckle, likewise for the last two items.
Oh and the idea that Marlowe would have to climb up there to help the knight—that’s imaginative irony.
What is at the core of the Quote?
Hyperbole exaggerates for emphasis and is not meant to be understood literally. Marlowe says the entrance doors would have let in a troop of Indian elephants.
Adianoeta is an expression that has two interpretations: one obvious, one subtle. When the subtle meaning is risqué, then it’s a double entendre. The help him has a double meaning, as does sociable.
Irony uses words in such a way as to convey a meaning contrary to the literal interpretation of the words. I would sooner or later have to climb up there is clearly not possible physically because men don’t climb into stained-glass panels in Chandler’s world. Likewise, He didn’t seem to be really trying isn’t meant literally—how could the knight be trying any harder, he’s fixed in one position!
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler.
- The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler. The other famous novel from Chandler’s Marlowe series.
- Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan. The cyberpunk version of a hard-boiled detective. More about his prose in the QQ article Murder Gradations.