Love Your Shelf Book Club #2: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
|Photo credit: Rick's Photo Thing|
With Sarah and Lynette
Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe is working for the Sternwood family. Old man Sternwood, crippled and wheelchair-bound, is being given the squeeze by a blackmailer and he wants Marlowe to make the problem go away. But with Sternwood's two wild, devil-may-care daughters prowling LA's seedy backstreets, Marlowe's got his work cut out – and that's before he stumbles over the first corpse... (Penguin re-issue edition)
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES
L: Money – everyone's doing something for money. I think this book is set in the 30s, right? Depression era. So money is pretty high on everyone's mind. And honour – family honour and Marlowe's own honour code, which I thought was interesting; he's an honourable man even with his 'dirty' work.
S: Ooh, I like those. I thought that, too – it's interesting that Marlowe is shown to not just be in his job for the money and has his own code of ethics. There're the classic noir themes: moral ambiguity, cynicism, fatalism, treachery, corruption...
L: Yes, cynicism was a big one I noticed, too. I wondered if that theme was also linked to the Depression era (which I believe is when a lot of noir classics are set). And, of course, corruption – no one is innocent, everyone has some sort of angle or connection. I thought the ending was quite dark, in line with the cynicism.
S: Definitely – there's that postwar pessimism and darkness that is consistent throughout the book, despite the wry humour.
"No one is innocent, everyone has some sort of angle or connection."
L: Wow, so much description! He really sets each scene, but it didn't become tiresome as I expected. His descriptions, similes, metaphors etc. were really fresh and striking. Also, Marlowe's sarcasm, his snappy wit, is delightful.
S: Yes, I really appreciated the good scene-setting! I’d been concerned that the language might be hard to follow due to the overuse of hardboiled slang, but I found it reassuringly readable at the start.
L: Yes, mostly, although that was something I was going to mention as something I didn't like. So I'll save my two cents on the language for later. 😉
S: Hmm, yes, this was just my first impression, haha! I was quite struck by the initial image described at the very start – a stained-glass panel over the entrance to Marlowe’s client’s house. It shows a knight who ‘didn’t seem to be really trying’ to rescue a damsel in distress.
L: Ahhh, yes.
S: This signalled to me that I was reading something that would subvert common literary tropes, which intrigued me. I knew I was in for a darkly enjoyable slice of escapism.
L: Indeed. Quite applicable to Marlowe himself and also ties in with the idea of honour, perhaps. Thinking of the codes of the typical knight.
S: Exactly. The notion of defeated chivalry is a big one in this.
L: Yes. And yet Marlowe is quite chivalrous in his own way – not taking advantage of Carmen, for example.
S: Yes, but Carmen is not your typical 'lady'. Therefore, Marlowe can never really be a hero...
L: Ugh, indeed. She's one of the 'things I didn't like'.
S: Blech, the thumb-sucking thing... 😒
L: Oh my gosh. I hated her from the beginning. More on that later... 😁
WHAT WE LIKED ABOUT IT
S: I liked that there was such attention to detail in building atmosphere and characterisation.
L: Me too. I liked that there was a bit of a twist, when I had thought the book would revolve around solving one murder. I liked the dark humour and sarcasm.
S: I quite liked the twist, too. Although apparently there’s a rather big plot hole – Chandler himself can’t explain [who killed the Sternwoods' chauffeur] (highlight to view spoiler). But because he focused so much more on atmosphere and characterisation, he didn’t give as much thought to tying up loose ends.
L: True. In fact, I overlooked that hole in the plot, being distracted by other things and beginning to suspect [Carmen] more...
S: Me too! I found the story so well told that it didn’t even occur to me until I did some further research. On the topic of atmosphere and characterisation, I felt that place is as much a character as the people in this novel. Chandler has such an aesthetic, cinematic (and, fittingly, perhaps even forensic) approach to each scene; everything feels carefully constructed to reveal key character traits and themes.
"Chandler has such an aesthetic, cinematic approach to each scene; everything feels carefully constructed."
L: Absolutely cinematic – that was the feeling I got. I could imagine myself as a script writer or theatre producer, reading through the book and seeing everything already laid out as it needed to be.
S: I like that this allows you to view the world through a detective’s eyes – noting details others might pass over.
L:Yes, and that was another reason I didn't mind all the description. Besides its freshness, it was purposeful.
S: Exactly! And, while I haven't seen the film, I can imagine Humphrey Bogart quipping some of Marlowe's lines.
L: Yeah. 😀 And Lauren Bacall would have been an amazing Vivian... I don't know who actually played her in the film...
S: It's made me very curious to see their sexual tension! And I know there were some issues to do with comprehensiveness, but I enjoyed the language most of all – the dialogue is snappy and wisecracking. The descriptions are vivid, with surprising and humorous similes (e.g. ‘the purring voice was now as false as an usherette's eyelashes’).
L: Yes, overall I loved the language and the dialogue. It often made me laugh or caught my attention with the vivid pictures.
S: While Philip Marlowe might be seen as archetypal of the noir genre, I was pleasantly surprised by just how inventive and playful the language is. But at the same time I found it in keeping with the jaded tone.
L: Oh hey, I just looked it up. It is Bacall who played Vivian! Called it. 😜
S: Haha, who else?
WHAT WE DIDN'T LIKE ABOUT IT
L: I didn't like a lot of the old-fashioned slang in the dialogue, which was not unfitting, but a bit distracting for me, e.g.: 'Tie that for an ex-legger in the rich gravy.' It's not that I couldn't understand it, but sometimes it took me a minute and I felt it distracted from my pleasure.
S: Right, sometimes it could disrupt the reading flow because it felt unnatural or overly stylised. And, while I found it generally understandable, the creative hardboiled slang could be puzzling at times!
L: Precisely. I assume it was more understandable back when the novel was written!
S: Possibly! It's with good reason that hardboiled slang dictionaries exist!
L: Ooo, dictionary... Also, let's talk about Carmen! I was really hoping she would get bumped off. I kept hoping someone would do it throughout the book... incredibly irritating. And that scene at the end where [she was hissing and shooting at Marlowe, I didn't know what to think of her. Is she genuinely unhinged?]
"I was really hoping Carmen would get bumped off. I kept hoping someone would do it throughout the book..."
S: Yeah, she did grate! As we mentioned above, I think she was intended to be pretty awful as she's the embodiment of Marlowe's defeated chivalry/masculinity.
L: Chandler did a good job of painting her that way then. Although it was almost comic at times – her flirting, for example.
S: That was disturbing! On that note, Marlowe says ‘It's so hard for women – even nice women – to realise that their bodies are not irresistible’?!
L: Yah, haha. The book seems to have a very typical view of women for the time.
S: Tying into that, my main gripe might be seen as somewhat inevitable (especially for the genre) given that it was first published in 1939: the depiction of women and the obviously male gaze/authorial voice. These are hard to ignore from a modern perspective.
L: True, but actually that didn't really bother me, immersing myself in the context of the story.
S: Did you think that the seduction felt slightly like wish fulfilment? [Both main female characters try to seduce Marlowe, who spurns their advances.]
L: Hmm. I didn't read it that way at the time, but I can see how you could take it that way. I felt that it was a little bit forced into the plot, actually, like something a reader would expect in there, but the writer was a little reluctant to put in. There wasn't much emphasis on romance or seduction for Marlowe at all, even with Silver-Wig later, which felt like it came out of the blue. There wasn't much behind it.
S: No, but he's presented as somewhat irresistible, but callous, which is probably intended to increase his desirability, of course.
L: Haha, yeah. Although I felt like the women weren't really that attracted to him. More like using their bodies to try and get something they wanted.
S: Yeah, there's definitely that side of it, too. Everyone is acting based on their own selfish motivations. I guess it's just interesting that the women are shown to go about this in a specifically sexual way.
L: Yes, that's true and quite common even today in mainstream media, I think.
S: Absolutely! I agree that you get into the head space of Marlowe, gender binary and all, and suspend judgement to a certain degree as you expect it. But at times it did irk. At one point Marlowe describes a female character by comparing her legs to another woman's: ‘Her legs didn’t quite have the raffish grace of Mrs Regan’s legs, but they were very nice.’ Women are primarily described in terms of their sexual allure.
L: Yes, that is true. Although do we read that as part of the character, or as the typical style of the day, or both? Since it is all through Marlowe's eyes.
S: It's weird. On the one hand you have this disrupted trope of the traditional knight and maiden, which is quite subversive, but on the other you have very gendered roles and traits.
L: An intriguing mix. Deliberate or not? Who's to say?
S: I also found that the women generally act as assistants/accomplices or are quite passive/in the background in terms of the action and business dealings of the novel, although, as you say, the central female characters have their own secrets and motivations.
L: Indeed. But even then, the central female characters get less time than the men. It's a man's world... 😛
S: One could argue that the women are simply shrewdly taking advantage of the way they're usually seen – their sexuality. But yeah, the book is undeniably written from a markedly male perspective. Like, there's this fear/suspicion of female sexuality bound up in that, even if Chandler intended to show the women as intelligent and having autonomy.
S: You raised an interesting point just before – about how there isn't much emphasis on romance or seduction for Marlowe. He doesn’t have any real friends or family, either – at least, none who are mentioned. Did you feel slightly alienated from him because of this?
L: Oh, that's an interesting thought. I didn't feel a sense of alienation, but I didn't really get attached to him, either. He was very much a lone wolf, but I've always had a sort of sympathy or attraction for those lone wolf, hardboiled types. 😣
S: I think it was purposeful – it lends to his independent, somewhat callous persona, and I found the characters all vividly and skilfully drawn. But outside of his job, I couldn't help wondering what kind of person Marlowe is really.
L: Mmmm. That may be a ploy to get you to read more books, haha.
S: Haha, I can see how an archetypal character like that could be easily transferred to different books in a series. I liked that he’s not just in it for the money and has his own moral code. I also find him interesting as a symbol of defeated traditional heroism/masculinity. But I’d have been interested to know more about his personal history and see a few moments of softness or moral conflict in him.
"Outside of his job, I couldn't help wondering what kind of person Marlowe is really."
L: Yes, there's very little softness to him. Although the book did subvert certain tropes, in other ways it was very black and white. The characters are good guys and bad guys. There is very little ambiguity or moral conflict.
S: Well, yes and no – Marlowe is rather grey. He has a moral code, but he doesn't strike me as a particularly principled or empathetic guy. And Vivian [isn't exactly bad or good, either – she's just looking out for her sister.] They both have a mission, I guess – a moral imperative. But they kind of pursue that to the exclusion of all else.
L: Fair points!
S: I think it's maybe that there are no 'true' good guys. And Carmen? Well, [she's just crazy!]
L: I think that's the bottom line for her... [I couldn't even establish a motive for most of what she did... just crazy, or perhaps attention-seeking.]
S: Agreed! That was something that frustrated me a bit – while I quite liked the twist at the end, the foreshadowing that led up to it and the layers of deception that concealed it, the explanation that [Carmen killed Rusty essentially because she’s crazy and he spurned her] was a little simple for me.
L: Yah. I was expecting perhaps some more layers of blackmail, or that [Rusty and Carmen] were more involved in the criminal underworld as well.
S: I guess it maybe comes back to the point that Chandler was more interested in characterisation and atmosphere than explanations?
L: Yes, it could be. And as we mentioned earlier, we enjoyed that enough to be able to forgive him for some of the plot holes and lack of depth to certain parts/characters.
S: Yeah, I'll let him off... this time...
|Credit: Adam Osgood 2015|
L: Punchy and fast-paced, dark but funny. Some good escapism with sparkling lines and a bit of a twist. I enjoyed it! Your thoughts?
S: The vivid, creative language that subverts expectations while reflecting the novel’s main themes elevates it beyond your typical crime/mystery pulp fiction... but I yearned to see a more human side to Marlowe.
L: It was my first noir book, although I'm acquainted with the genre through film. It's dark without being overwhelmingly so. The humour saves it.
S: Yeah, mine too. It does have a good balance of elements, although I'm a sucker for books with a darker edge that also explore a more personal side. Think you'll read more?
L: Yes, I will, when I'm in the mood for something light but dark. 😀 And actually I liked that there wasn't much romance. I'd gotten tired of reading romance, so it was nice to pick up a book that hardly had any lovey-dovey nonsense in it. 😉
S: Yeah, that was quite refreshing, despite the casual objectification on Marlowe's part. 😅 I'd like to explore the genre further, too – perhaps a bit of Dashiell Hammett is in order...
S: ‘I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.’
‘Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.’
‘As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style.’
And, of course: ‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.’
L: Ah yes, the end quote. 👍 I only wrote one down because it made me laugh, haha:
'I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.'
S: Ha, I liked that one, too. 😀
WE’D RECOMMEND THIS BOOK FOR...
L: Readers who appreciate a good literary tome but are looking for something lighter – Chandler delivers on the sophisticated dialogue and descriptions in a way that gives more depth to the book, but without much philosophical meat. It's a good summer holiday read, too.
S: Yas. 👍 I'd recommend it for anyone who’s a fan of noir or crime/mystery novels who hasn’t read any Philip Marlowe books yet! Where better to go for a taste of the tarnished American dream than the most iconic noir PI of all time?
L: Absolutely! And perhaps newcomers to the noir genre, too.
UPCOMING BOOK CLUB TITLE
Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime) by Akiko Higashimura. If you haven't read it yet, check out our last book club post on The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Get in touch if you want to be involved in future chinwags!