Before the action really kicks in, though, what interested me was the description. It's not uniformly good, but it is very frequently extensive, even belabored. What interests me, though, is not so much its quality as its role in the novel. Let's take the following, rather lengthy passage:
It was a wide room, the whole width of the house. It had a low beamed ceiling and brown plaster walls decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery and Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames. There were low bookshelves, there was a thick pinkish Chinese rug in which a gopher could have spent a week without showing his nose above the nap. There were floor cushions, bits of odd silk tossed around, as if whoever lived there had to have a piece he could reach out and thumb. There was a broad low divan of old rose tapestry. It had a wad of clothes on it, including lilac-colored silk underwear. There was a big carved lamp on a pedestal, two other standing lamps with jade-green shades and long tassels. There was a black desk with carved gargoyles at the corners and behind it a yellow satin cushion on a polished black chair with carved arms and back. The room contained an odd assortment of odors, of which the most emphatic at the moment seemed to be the pungent aftermath of cordite and the sickish aroma of ether.Perhaps it is merely due to my perceptions of the genre, but this seems unnaturally verbose (even florid) for the "hardboiled" aesthetic. While a number of very short declarative sentences punctuate this long descriptive section, the average number of words per sentence is about 16. Perhaps that is not very long (for fun, I found a passage on the same numbered page—page 31—of the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way which has an almost identical number of words, and the words-per-sentence figure there is about 39.5), but it is not exactly laconic. The reputation for hardboiled terseness, then, probably derives more from the relative frequency of these short, declarative sentences rather than an overall, consistent effect of close-lippedness.
On a sort of low dais at one end of the room there was a high-backed teakwood chair in which Miss Carmen Sternwood was sitting on a fringed orange shawl. She was sitting very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect in the pose of an Egyptian goddess, her chin level, her small bright teeth shining between her parted lips. Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn't change her expression or even move her lips.
She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn't wearing anything else.
She had a beautiful body, small lithe, compact, firm, rounded. Her skin in the lamplight had the shimmering luster of a pearl. Her legs didn't quite have the raffish grace of Mrs. Regan's legs, but they were very nice. I looked her over without either embarrassment or ruttishness. As a naked girl she was not there in that room at all. She was just a dope. To me she was always just a dope.
But I'd like to focus more on the role of detail in this passage. Detail, generally speaking, has a few narrative functions. Scene-setting, of course, meaning the provision of details necessary to understand the action, but in this passage, the details which actually perform this function are relatively few: the cordite and ether smells and the nudity. These elements are going to be required both by the reader and by Marlowe to understand what has happened and to advance the plot.
Realistic scene-dressing is the provision of quotidian details which, because of their superfluity or excessiveness, demonstrate at least the authorial intention of anchoring the action in reality. The author is telling us, "I want you to know that I am holding myself to the possibly real; I am committed to keeping my imagination from running completely free." The upshot of this action is a sort of de-pressuring of the reader's suspension of disbelief; the reader isn't supposed to be convinced that the action has truly taken place, but that the contract between the author and the reader has been re-negotiated with better terms for the reader: less suspension, less effort is required. The main beneficiary of this re-negotiated contract is, however, the action. An author can be a little bit more flamboyant with plot, allowing for more coincidences, more exaggerated or stretched probabilities, when the reader believes that the author is committed to coloring in the lines of the real. The multitude of superfluous details here serves this function very well.
A third function, which does take place somewhat in this section, is the establishment of a character's attributes and inclinations—in short, his personality—by displaying what he sees and how he sees it. The fact that a deep carpet makes Marlowe think of gophers is interesting, and presumably tells us something about him—that he has a streak of whimsy, perhaps.
But what I think the details really do—and I think this continues throughout the book—their preeminent function is, in fact, the permission they give for voyeurism. The careful descriptions of the contours and colors of each irrelevant piece of furniture allows Marlowe's gaze to slide right onto a naked woman with the semblance, stressed by Marlowe, of disinterest. Taking note of the colors and contours of her body become just an extension of a process Marlowe has already started—a forensic examination of the room. This professional gaze simply must include the woman's skin and shape. We, the reader, merely get to look over the shoulder of the detective, as we have been doing throughout the book.
Of course, I am far from the first to note how the professional demeanor and habits of detectives or spies—police or private eyes—opens up a huge space for voyeurism. Critics of shows like Law & Order have made this point, as have critics of James Bond, and, no doubt, critics of the noir genre. Michael Denning, in his book on British spy thrillers, plays on the Bond formula "license to kill" by calling this the "license to look." And that is what is happening in the passage above. A balance is achieved between the mundane and the lurid that enables a plausible deniability of pure "ruttishness," as Marlowe calls it.
Of course the back cover, which begins, "She was waiting in his bed…" begs the question of whose plausible deniability is being constructed here. No one reads noir for the "Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames," and no one really claims to be, or believes that other readers might be doing so. It's the girls and the guns, and everyone knows it, likes it, and admits knowing and liking it.
Perhaps the argument should be that the negligible obstacle of this inclusion of the mundane simply adds to the reader's pleasure by delaying it, just as the detective plot itself delays the gratification of knowledge and of the ending. But I think there's also a desire on the part of the reader for a sort of reciprocity: if the author is checking his or her imagination to give the appearance of remaining within the bounds of the possibly real, the reader likewise wishes to discipline his or her imagination, remaining within a code of sorts or adhering to a sense of decorum. It's no fun if the writer is playing tennis with a net but you're not.
Of course, some readers don't think that and skip to the lurid scenes of the books they read, whether that's Lawrence Durrell or Charlaine Harris. I don't know what to do with them, but I think they're probably a minority. Most readers are, I'll bet, interested in this reciprocity, which is itself a very fascinating phenomenon.