Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

What is honor?  

I had no idea this book was so good.   I thought it would be stupid.  The first chapter was amazing, establishing the impressive Sternwood mansion, the suffocating hothouse preserving the decrepit old man, the two corrupt girls. The hero, Philip Marlowe, educated private detective, is hired by General Sternwood, the dying oil magnate, to discover who's been blackmailing him on account of his two beautiful wayward daughters. Carmen, the younger, clearly has a screw loose, and Vivian, the older smarter one, seems to be hiding something. Numerous shootings and car chases follow.  Nearly every woman he encounters has a soft spot for tall dark Marlowe.

Chandler's strength is description, and it was entertaining reading about LA and Hollywood in the 1940's. Rialto is farmland here, orange groves, not acres of housing like it is now. The writing is deadpan and funny and even though the dialogue is sometimes hampered by obsolete slang it moves the story along and is witty. The book is a very easy read.

Philip Marlowe is still a little shocked at how fallen the world is. What are principles? Some low down people seem to have them, and some high class people definitely don't. The family story provides the motivations here. The Sternwoods are trying to protect each other and Marlowe is trying to protect the Sternwoods. To a degree.

Certain elements haven't stood the test of time. The porn library on Hollywood Boulevard is funny now - the criminalization of stuff available immediately on the Internet. Also, a key part of the plot reminded me of The Sound and The Fury, in that the premise rests on a nutty concept of female sexuality. About a third of the way through, the story degenerates into a welter of dames shooting guns and having fits, and the novel stopped making narrative sense. Also, I am stumped by Marlowe falling in love with Mona Mars who he has apparently known for two minutes.

But I will definitely read more Chandler.


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