Monday, April 23, 2012

1930s - the big sleep (1939)

Image source
I've been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, so it seemed kind of fitting to read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler as my book for the 1930s. It was also something of a change for me, since my usual preferred crime subgenre is murder mysteries/whodunits, preferably cozy and/or Golden Age, and almost invariably British. The Big Sleep is none of those things (apart from being a crime novel and in fact a contemporary of a lot of Golden Age novels)- it's American, hardboiled and not particularly cozy. It's hard not to pick up on a lot of the hardboiled tropes though, through movies and spoofs and all sorts of cultural references, and reading this book for me was all about enjoying the genre experience. It's a pretty fantastic genre experience, with dames and liquor and wise-cracks and so on.

Philip Marlowe is our detective, introduced in a powder blue suit "calling on four million dollars" to take on a case. The case is to suss out some notes that purport to be gambling IOUs from the millionaires daughters and check out whether there's any blackmail intention behind them, though everyone he meets thinks it is to find the millionaires missing son-in-law. Things quickly get complicated, with the millionaires two daughters, pornographers, gambling and some murders, of course. 

The plot is perhaps a little too complicated. When I told my friend Sam I was reading book he told me that one of the murders is never solved, and when Raymond Chandler was asked who did it even he didn't know. It doesn't matter in the end, matters are resolved and most loose ends are tied. The atmosphere is so full of crime and corruption that an extra murder kind of gets lost in the murk. A lot of the criminal activity almost ends up as red herrings, although it does lead to the case being solved in the end.

In a sense the book is more about the detective than the plot. He is the one honest man in a corrupt town, though he doesn't look like it (which I think is characteristic for the genre?). He may be a detective for hire, who drinks scotch at all hours of the day and night and talks back to the toughest guys in town, but he acts on different principles to everyone around him, the racketeers and the corrupt policemen of post-Prohibition L.A. He's also college educated and a chess player. The first page sets the tone with the image of a stained glass picture of a knight rescuing a lady:

The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

There's something appealing about the reckless but honest hero/detective. But to be honest, it's not the incorruptibility that I read it for. It's the wise-cracking, danger-seeking tone and the general 1930s atmosphere. Those moments when you feel you are deeply immersed in noir. Like these:
I sat down at the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.
The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race

I missed the accumulation of clues and suspects of my murder mysteries, but this was a fun trip into a different type of crime (and a very different world), I might have to get more familiar with the genre.


  1. Anonymous25/4/12 19:24

    A nice summary of noir for someone unfamiliar with it. If I was not already overcommitted I might even take one up (though overcommittment has never stopped me before). And I promised an Indian that I would read "The White Tiger" and "Kim". Kim I finished and to my surprise enjoyed it greatly. I can see why an Indian might appreciate it.
    TWT, I haven't yet started. I admit I have been distracted by Neal Stephenson, who has an absorbing style. (Currently on "Anathem".)

    1. If you are overcommitted with books, you could watch a noir movie? I am thinking of doing that this weekend myself. You could break out some Glenfiddich to go along with it. :)

  2. Anonymous29/4/12 17:58

    Glenfiddich seems a bit upmarket for noir. It would have to be "Old Turkey's Rotgut" - as brewed in Arkansas during probition - or some such to be appropriate. As I am not so fond of whiskey at the best of times, I fear a noir film with appropriate whiskey might not work for me. Mum might like the Glenfiddich, but I don't know about the noir. (She watched "Hello Dolly" last night, not so much noir as blanc, or possibly rose. Louis Armstrong made a cameo appearance, but couldn't be called noir in anything other than skin colour, and even then "brun" would be more accurate.)
    Anyway, it's now Sunday evening, and I think we have missed the opportunity.
    About to try pumpkin risotto for tea, but without either whiskey or noir film to accompany it.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed it :) they're a lot of fun. and i love the surprisingly picturesque descriptions you get of the Californian landscape (maybe more of that in the later novels than in The Big Sleep?).
    I have The Big Sleep on DVD. It's quite good, though I agree, Jack Daniels would probably suit its aesthetic a bit better than Glenfiddich.

    1. There's a bit of landscape in The Big Sleep, though I didn't notice that much. I mostly got swept up in all the noir. :)
      And I just thought that Dad might already have some Glenfiddich on hand to enjoy with it, though you're right that Jack Daniels is probably more suitable. Maybe drink Glenfiddich and pretend it's Jack Daniels?