Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Full disclosure: this is the first Raymond Chandler book I have ever read. Really. Ever. I've been meaning to read Chandler for years, and every time his name came up or popped into my head I would experience massive literary guilt. You manic readers and book lovers out there know what I'm talking about... I am brought low by literary guilt at least once a week. You know, when you're talking book and someone names an author that you haven't read but feel you should have? Say a book like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead or the Harry Potter series, neither of which I've read, but have lied about reading at one time or another, and will probably continue to do so until my literary guilt peaks and I pick them up off the shelf. Hey, doesn't everyone do this?

Since it is my goal to establish myself as an expert in literary crime fiction and mysteries, I knew I had to pick up a Chandler novel. Actually, I picked up four (I have a friend at Vintage), but started with The Big Sleep. This novel is relentless. It takes place over the course of a week, and it is a week packed with action: blackmail, murder, sexy women, and the infamously unflappable Marlow, a thirty-eight-year-old private dick moving through the seamy side of 1930's Los Angeles. Unflappable is not an overstatement - I mean this guy is so smooth and so smart that he is never surprised. He is such a good detective that he almost doesn't seem human. Two incredibly rich and sexy women, sisters nonetheless, throw themselves at him and he coolly rebuffs them, even when they say things like, "Hold me close, you beast," or sneak into his apartment, climb into his bed naked, and wait for his return. This prompts Marlow to muse, "It's so hard for women - even nice women - to realize that their bodies are not irresistible." The only thing that Marlow finds irresistible is solving crimes; being a dedicated detective.Riding along with Marlow you know you're in good hands. You know he won't get himself in a situation that he can't escape from, and you have absolute confidence that he'll solve the crime with panache.

It's cool to be so intimate with such a bad ass, but for me Marlow's very invincibility was the one downside of this novel. I like my detectives to have flaws, tics, weaknesses, vulnerabilities. I like it when they get themselves into impossible situations that they can't see their way out of, but somehow miraculously and surprisingly escape. I was never scared for Marlow, and while this novel was a fast and gripping read, it didn't raise my pulse.Hmm, perhaps I just described the difference between a classic detective novel and a contemporary mystery/suspense/thriller? Holmes is unflappable in much the same way, but in his case we have Watson to identify with. I seem to remember Poe's Auguste Dupin had these same characteristics, but his genius is moderated by the narrator, who is of a more average intelligence.

Marlow works alone, or at least he does in this novel, and while I admired him greatly and was often in awe of his smooth talk and logic, I had a hard time identifying with him.Despite my one complaint, (which may be a complaint against the genre and not Chandler in particular), I have three more Chandler novels to read, and I'm looking forward to them.

Favorite quote: "I went upstairs and sat in my chair thinking about Harry Jones and his story. It seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact."

2 comments:

Thorn said...

Excellent review. Am a huge Chandler fan - for vulnerability and/or flaws in Marlowe, try The Little Sister or The Lady in the Lake. The beauty of Chandler is that he actually made Marlowe change and grow and develop. The Big Sleep is an early novel.

Book Cannibal said...

Thanks for the recommendation - I actually have The Lady in the Lake cued up, and your comments just moved it up in the pile. I read The Big Sleep on the heels of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, and the superlatively flawed protagonist made me realize how much I love to read about characters with gaping imperfections. One of the great things about writing these reviews is that it forces you to analyze your reading preferences, and spend more time reading the books your love!