Literary daybook, Feb. 6

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 6, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 6, Cecilia Abbott is born.
-- "The Patron Saint of Liars" (1992)
By Ann Patchett

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1939, Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" was published. Chandler was 51, an ex-oil company executive who had taken up writing at the age of 45, after being fired for alcohol-inspired absenteeism. Over the previous five years he had published enough crime stories in the pulp magazines to survive, but this was his first novel, the first of seven featuring the ever-inimitable but much-copied Philip Marlowe. Marlowe's first words, to the first of so many women -- here Carmen Sternwood, with tawny hair, slate-gray eyes and "predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith" -- give notice:

"'Tall, aren't you?' she said.
'I didn't mean to be.'
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her."

Publisher Alfred Knopf thought this promising and took out a full, front-page ad in Publisher's Weekly to announce it:

In 1929 Dashiell Hammett
In 1934 James M. Cain
In 1939 Raymond Chandler

Readers would only ever get bits and pieces of Marlowe's past. To General Sternwood, Marlowe describes himself as a 33-year-old who "went to college once and can still speak English if there's any demand for it." Chandler lived and went to school in England; as one of the boys in Marlowe House, Dulwich College, he must have learned a lot about that Elizabethan bad boy and sometime spy, Christopher Marlowe. This included his poetry, Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love" on the right below, Chandler's knock-off on the left:

"Come with me, love,    Come with me and be my love,
Across the world,    And we will all the pleasures prove,
Ere glory fades    That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
And wings are furled ...     Woods, or steepy mountain yields ... "

This is a long way from the style that made Chandler an ex-oilman and a famous writer: "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard." But Philip Marlowe knows romance too, and its sister. At the end of "The Big Sleep," after having tossed Carmen -- "She was in my bed -- naked. I threw her out on her ear." -- he confronts the older, more tempting Vivian Sternwood for the last time, and with the smoking gun:

"I stood up and took the smoking cigarette from between her fingers and killed it in the ashtray. Then I took Carmen's little gun out of my pocket and laid it carefully, with exaggerated care, on her white satin knee. I balanced it there, and stepped back with my head on one side like a window-dresser getting the effect of a new twist of scarf around a dummy's neck ... "

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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