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February 12, 2012

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The Big Sleep

Raymond-Chandler

Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep will hit you like a ton of bricks. It is a masterful whodunit thriller which doesn’t mince words, a.k.a. it’s crude and forceful, like meat and potatoes. It has quite a unique literary style which … probably had a big impact on the detective/mystery and pulp fiction genre and subsequent Film noir adaptations. I recommend it highly; you won’t be bored … at least I wasn’t.

—Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains —said Marlowe with a gun being pointed at him.

But first, let me digress a little. You see I haven’t written in a while; although, I have a list of topics for future posts. But my mind wasn’t on it and I don’t want to post fluff, just for the heck of it. Also, I had started reading The Big Sleep a while back but my Kindle reader croaked. However, the wonderful folks at Amazon.com were kind enough to send me a new one, at no cost, since it was still under warranty. Thanks Amazon!

Additionally, it’s not that I haven’t been writing much these days. Au contraire, mon ami, I have been busy editing and generally working on my own novel. Hopefully, I’ll post interesting stuff again.

So, I got hold of the 1946 film adaptation with the great actor Humphrey Bogart and beautiful and wonderful actress Lauren Bacall. But I haven’t watched it because I wanted to finish the novel first; although, I have read rave reviews about this movie. Not to worry, since I will be commenting on the movie as soon as I watch it.

Mr. Chandler was born in Chicago but spent most of his childhood and youth in England, where he received a good classical education. Tried a stint as a newspaper journalist but was unsuccessful. He moved to California and it was tough for a while, doing all kinds of jobs. He fought in WWI. Chandler didn’t actually start his writing career until he was forty five, after he was fired as an oil business executive VP; you know the story … women, alcohol, cigarettes, et al. I only mention this brief bio because this was a man that had a lot real-life world experience and it shows in his writing; especially a sense of unromantic business pragmatism which is well suited for the genre.

The novel takes place in Los Angeles, circa mid 30s. I imagine a growing city but one who still had some elements of small town for which you could put your hands around it. Philip Marlowe is a private investigator, smart, I dare say cunning and not doing well as far as money is concerned; you could say he’s just surviving. He’s hired by the Sternwood’s, a rich family, on a blackmail case. The plot is complicated and in there lies its charm. Just when you think you have everything figured out halfway through the book, you realize that there is more, a lot more.

There are seedy characters, murders, extortion, gambling, smut rackets, guns, the law … you name it; it’s all in there for your enjoyment. The Sternwood’s, the wealthy family are not at all together, either. The two daughters, the younger one in her early twenties and the older one whose husband, a former bootlegger, had recently disappeared without so much as leaving a trace, are most definitely trouble. And Marlowe is not the “would be super hero” who goes unscathed either.

Ok, I know it’s not much but that is as far as the plot that I’ll give you; don’t want to ruin it for you. But let’s talk about the style.

Philip Marlowe

At first it took me a while to get the gist of it. The novel is full of slang, clichés, et al. But don’t get me wrong, the heavy usage of it doesn’t detract from it; instead this is what makes the novel’s style unique. The characters are witty, quick and outright sharp so they can come back with those snappy responses. Marlowe is particularly good at it. I found myself consulting the dictionary quite often. Of course, on the Kindle this is a snap; just move your cursor over the word and bingo the definition pops out immediately. After a while, Marlowe’s first person narrative grows on you and it seems quite natural. Some of the witticisms are quite funny and memorable.

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Aug 1 2013

    It’s all a matter of personal preference so we could argue this (pointlessly) forever but when I read about plans for “updating” a character in order to make it “relevant to today’s audiences” a sense of impending doom comes over me. “Today’s audiences” is film-studio marketing speak for “males, ages 18-34.” I’m a middle-aged broad and I realize that if I like a current action/crime/thriller film, it’s just the icing on a cake for a studio. They didn’t make it for me, but if I like it, that’s fine.“Updating” usually means ratcheting up the number of spoken “f— yous” and f—– scenes in a movie, whether or not they appeared in a book. No, I’m not a prude. But this was not an element of Chandler’s fiction (with a notable exception in “The Big Sleep”) and it would annoy me to see it on screen. Having few options for CGI effects to draw in the desired age group—who will watch even a PG-13 film if it has enough of this—the director/producers would have to rely on sex and language to get the desired R rating to bring in the targeted audience. Now, on the other hand, violence in Chandler’s works would give filmmakers ample opportunities to depict it in the graphic, almost pornographic, fashion so many of today’s directors are fond of. No problem.Another given in any new Chandler adaptation is, I think, the overemphasis on what contemporary filmmakers think of when they envision “noir”. So we will get a lot of smarty-pants wisecracking, artsy camera angles, lighting effects, fedoras drawn low over foreheads, rumpled trench coats, etc. and character—so essential to a Marlowe novel—is bound to take a back seat to this stuff. Of course, few members of the audience will have ever read a Raymond Chandler novel so few will notice the omissions, regret their absence.Chandler is my favorite crime fiction author so maybe I tend to get overly, needlessly anxious when I read about plans for new movies based on his works. There are several dozen contemporary cops/detectives in the literature with Marlowe’s sense of honor and personal integrity that could make great transitions to the screen with all the requisite “relevance to today’s audiences.” Why pick on Marlowe?

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