Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

"When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in."
I can never look at orchids the same way again. For in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, one of his characters describes orchids as "nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute". Those words are spoken by an old and "obviously dying" man, General Sternwood, who has hired Philip Marlowe
to investigate a blackmail attempt. The General had two daughters - Vivian "spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless" and Carmen, "a child who likes to pull wings off flies" are how he describes them.

Marlowe is not much of a likeable character. He is a hard man and abides by his own rules and morals. The other characters, especially the women, are even less likeable, and more 'argh! What's the matter with you?'

Although it's quite an exciting book, I was less enamoured with the plot than with Chandler's lush writing. He leads the reader into this world, in a time quite different from today. But he doesn't shove it in your face. Instead he takes your hand and leads you in, and then shoves it in your face - you can smell it on you, even after you put the book down. He is a genius at setting a scene, perhaps due to his previous screenwriting experience. One of my favourite descriptions is of a building:
"Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer - if the postal inspectors didn't catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stake cigar butts would be the cleanest odor."

And he doesn't restrict these descriptions to the scenery. Chandler definitely made me sit up when he described one of the supposed baddies as such: "His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that." He hit the nail on the head with that one. Chandler himself is quoted in the introduction: "There must be magic in the writing but I take no credit for it. It just happens, like red hair."

It's magic all right.


Rose City Reader said...

Oh, your review makes me want to dive right in to more Chandler!

olduvai said...

Hi Rose City Reader!

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I look forward to reading more Chandler myself!