Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler

Published: 1939
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction  Hard-boiled detective
Setting: Los Angeles
Rating: 3
Lists: TIME's 100 Best Novels (2005), 1001 books
Review: Goodreads

I wanted to read this after reading The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  Both are hard-boiled detective stories featuring iconic protagonists, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  Both authors wrote their novels after first submitting well-received short stories for the immensely popular pulp-fiction magazine, the Black Mask. 

The book I checked out from the library was interesting.  According to information on the last page, it was one of 425 copies printed in 1986 by Andrew Hoyem at Arion Press.  Forty photographs, re-created  to mimic the look of 1930's movie stills are peppered throughout the book.  There was no censorship as two of the photos are of a half-nude and fully nude woman.  I should probably put a note on the book upon return.

The introduction describes Philip Marlowe as a "crusading knight, fighting evil both individual and social".... with "hard-boiled decency" and "gallantry towards women and other downtrodden."  I would agree.  Different than Hammett's Sam Spade who is edgier,  rough with women, and motivated by personal profit rather than righting any wrongs.

Before continuing on, I have a question: where does the term "hard-boiled" come from?  According to Wikipedia, this is a "colloquial phrase of understatement.  For an egg, to be hard boiled is to be comparatively tough" which means the "protagonist confronts danger and engages in violence on a regular basis." Interesting explanation.

While Hammett uses a third person narrator to tell Sam Spade's story, Chandler uses the first person, Philip Marlowe.  This has got to be one of the best descriptions of a guy who knows he is super-cool.
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 a well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars. 
Chandler's use of analogies was striking and is the main thing I will take away from this book (besides the twisty plot and sub-plots, interesting bad guy/gal characters and clear description of LA in the 30's which I do not plan to write about as it would spoil the book for anyone else).  Here are some of my favorites:

When Philip first meets Carmen Sternwood:
...she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.
Description of General Sternwood's greenhouse - where did Chandler get such crazy analogies?
The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.  They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.
Description of General Sternwood, an old, dying man who is not allowed to smoke, but would like to.
A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.
The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.
I lit the cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat hole.
When Philip found an uninvited naked Carmen in his bed and after he took her home:
....her eyes large and dark and empty like rain barrels in a drought.
I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets.
When he offered a cigarette to Harry Jones:
His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly.
Chandler's writing is what all writing should be: crisp, clear and concise.  My favorite examples and why:

The General's description of his own daughters.  In five short sentences, we know this family.
Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless.  Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies.  Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat.  Neither have I.  No Sternwood ever had.
How Philip felt after comprehending that someone like Carmen was in his space, his room, his bed.  This paragraph reveals character.
This was the room I had to live in.  It was all I had in the way of a home.  In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family.  Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that.  Nothing.  Such as they were they had all my memories.
When Philip goes to meet Harry Jones at his office.  Great descriptive writing. Many adjectives, only one adverb, miserably, which does its job to describe how this poor guy was sleeping.  Love it.  My notes in italics.
A nasty building.  A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor (yuck!).  An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackled stool, with a burst-out cushion under him.  His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light.  He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse (where does he come up with this stuff?)  Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion (so much is inferred by this comment).  On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.
The next two quotes hit me as they are about death.  This one reminds me of the day I found Josh - horribly true.
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
At the end of the book, Philip's musing about death or the "big sleep".
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marbled tower on top of a high hill?  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you.  You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
  • Read three other novels:  Farewell My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942) and The Lady in the Lake (1943)
  • Other "noir" detective book:  L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

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