Friday, March 30, 2012

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Title: The Big Sleep
Author: Raymond Chandler
Publisher: Knopf (1939)

 There are many releases/publishers for this novel. Mine was a UK version so I enjoyed a book filled with "tyres" and the like. I couldn't find a cover image so I took my own photo (featuring Hedgie and another book I read recently, and really liked) so that everyone could enjoy who I assume is supposed to be Carmen. In any case, I think Vintage's release is the easiest to get right now.

Michael and I didn't reach quite as far back as Austen's day this month but we're still kicking back with a classic. It's appropriate for us to visit one of the originals of the hard-boiled PI novels together because it was Michael who championed PI and mystery novels to me. In general, I prefer more modern authors when it comes to mysteries but it makes me feel high-brow and literary to visit those who blazed the trail. For anyone new to this series, this is where we choose a book/movie pairing and I say a few words on the book and Michael says a few words on the movie.

Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to look into a blackmail case. Sternwood has two daughters who tend to get into scrapes now and again. Sternwood is being blackmailed for the gambling debts owed by one of his daughters. The General doesn't mention anything about a missing son-in-law but, in the course of the blackmail investigation, pretty much everyone else does. Investigating both becomes a priority for Marlowe in the course of this novel.

If I sound a little sinister as a parent, Mr. Marlow, it is because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy. I need not add that a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets.

General Sternwood utters these words at the very beginning of our tale in regards to his indifference to his daughters' behavior. This is all well and good but it's a shame he's thinking of this so egocentrically. Whether he thinks he's getting what he deserves does he stop to think of whether his daughters are getting what they deserve? I was so preoccupied with my disgust with him as a parent, and the resultant contemptuous humans he financed, that I had a hard time really caring what happened to anyone. I almost got the feeling that I was supposed to have some sort of sentimental respect for the General (I'm quite sure Marlowe did) but some old guy retaining a bit of frankness is not enough to elicit my admiration. Anyway, this is all I'll say about this because it would otherwise make for a long ranty post totally focused on this guy's real stupidity in not encouraging these women into some sort of occupation. I realize it was 1939 but rich people have never been subject to the same restrictions as others. For heaven's sake, they could have taken up sailing or something. Ok, ok, shutting up now and moving on to the book.

If he ever gets wise to where you were last night in the rain, he'll wipe you off the way a cheque raiser wipes a cheque.

Yeah, it was that kind of book with that kind of language. I liked it, and it especially works in the beginning when events are crackling along at a nice pace. But it also has this sort of language:

Go ------ yourself.

Literally! Our gentle eyes cannot be abused with harsh language so it's blanked out. Extreme violence, gay and racial slurs are A-ok but (oh my!) let's be sure to keep "fuck" out of this book. How funny! It also danced around the pornography so I was never quite sure how serious an extortion ring the bad guys had going. Anyone familiar with that era's naughty pics want to enlighten me?

They put their beaks in their drinks, gurgled swiftly and went back.

Like I said the book starts off pretty action-packed but then it lulls a bit after the set-up. There is a period of time when Marlowe gets approached about the case more often then he goes out to investigate it. But, as you know, where a PI goes death was there shortly before so it doesn't lull for long. The plot, dare I say, thickens and Marlowe becomes more and more suspicious of events that appear unrelated to the blackmail.

While I enjoyed the turns of the plot and the descriptive writing style, I was never immersed in the story. Marlowe wasn't off-putting but I found no particular reason to like him all that much. He had a nice sense of justice and loyalty but that's plain good business sense for a PI. Sternwood I took in immediate dislike (the above rant probably makes that obvious) and the daughters were used as plot devices. The rest of our cast of characters were run of the mill baddies or too briefly seen to be interesting. I find it very difficult to really enjoy a story if I don't have a character with whom I can empathize. It doesn't matter if it's a hero or a baddie, I just need someone who I can connect with emotionally or via a clear motive.

It's nice to explore the root of a genre by taking these historical reads but for my avid reading I know I'm more likely to seek out modern mystery writers. Where do you stand on the classics?

Don't forget to check out the film review! And here's my favorite quote to enjoy on your way out:

"Tsk, tsk," I said, not moving at all. "Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains."

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
We don't post April's selection on April Fool's Day but it appears to be our month with a twist so check back next month for a little spin on the routine.

Links to previous joint posts: 


  1. Very interesting you only awarded this only 2 of 5 stars. I understand your reservations, though. When I first read "Go ------ yourself.", I wondered if Chandler wrote it that way, or the publisher censored it (and the writer). I'm sure the 'F-word' was certainly in the vocabulary of those in the 30s. Still, Chandler's dialogue and descriptive language made it memorable. I noted the same violence, altitude towards women, and gay and racial slurs as you. But, I guess, like Huckleberry Finn and the N-word, it's a moment given to pause, looking at it in context and the time that it was written in. We can't help noticing it, though.

    That said, I enjoyed the introduction of Philip Marlowe, though. I found myself, in the middle of the book and as it heads towards the end, seeing him as heroic in that uniquely cynical way of his. He's way more sympathetic than Sam Spade, at least for me. You're ability to puzzle out the plot is way better than I, Rachel. I start to wander and look back once Marlowe is out of the General's house. No matter. Love Chandler's use of words throughout.

    I see we both noted what's our favorite line from book and film ;-). Fine review, as usual, Rachel. And I can't wait for next month's twist ;-). Many thanks.

  2. Even though I liked the descriptive writing style and the dialogue I had to give it a below average due to my inability to connect with any characters or with motives. Sometimes that's just the way it goes with particular stories, huh?

    I would agree that context and time can certainly be responsible for offensive attitudes and language, and also that it's hard not to notice. I think I would give more breaks to historical writings for being so offensive if I didn't so often see a lot of those same offenses in modern books; if I won't give people a pass now I feel I can't give free and clear passes just because something is old. I mean, how old does something have to be before being just is no longer a responsibility? But it does bring up an interesting question: when is this type of thing appropriate and when is it not? Well, obviously, it's never appropriate but what I mean is when is it appropriate to a character? That is, I suppose, for each writer and reader to decide. One thing I do think is so much more true to life in historical writings is that Good Guy/Gal does not automatically mean having all the expected good qualities (and vice versa for Bad Guy/Gal). As in, nowadays you so often see Bad Characters having all these attributes that we consider socially unacceptable and Good Characters will never have them. However: sympathetic, loyal, caring people (like Marlowe) are just as likely as not to say derisive comments about gay people or anyone else they might have a prejudice against. I don't think you see those multi dimensional depictions as much in books today. (I guess we can hope that's partly because we really are moving forward to being a more accepting society.) Oh, I just had a thought: maybe the closest we get to that is stories about the mafia. That is a group of folks who do really horrible things to the community at large but who see loyalty and caring for family as prime directives. For me, it comes down to whether or not the attitude seems to be that of a character(s) or if it's an attitude of the book. If it's a character then I consider it a depiction of that character, if it's the book (so seeming like a reflection of the author's prejudices) then I consider it unacceptable.

    I most definitely agree that Marlowe is way more sympathetic than Spade. The only reason I wasn't able to hook up with him as a reader was because I couldn't understand what his motivation was. Was it simply that he felt compelled by his respect for the General? Did he start to feel some obligation to truth? Justice? I couldn't quite pinpoint why he was so willing to endanger himself (and allow others to court danger) for this particular case. What do you think?

    (speaking of motivation I recently watched Galaxy Quest again and I can't think of motivation anymore without thinking of Alan Rickman's motivation scene. we are, in my household, about to embark on an Alan Rickman marathon. woo hoo)

    I'm also looking forward to next month! Should be interesting!

  3. holy shit! i just noticed how loooooooooooooong that comment was. Ramble much?

  4. "I couldn't quite pinpoint why he was so willing to endanger himself (and allow others to court danger) for this particular case. What do you think?"

    Good point and question. Perhaps, it relates to that thing that got him fired from the D.A.'s office?

    Ah, GALAXY QUEST. Love that film. I think we need tee it up in this household, and soon. Thanks.