Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
By Raymond Chandler

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am making a concerted effort to read novels by authors I have previously ignored or, for whatever reason, passed by over the years. I'm trying to round off my reading in such a way that I have less unexplored corners and reading renowned writers who have otherwise travelled under my radar seems like the perfect way to cover a few bases. One such writer is Raymond Chandler, the detective writer extraordinaire and the grandfather of hard-boiled mysteries Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett are single handedly responsible for the careers of a half dozen leading men in Hollywood between 1930 and 1960. Hard-boiled lingo has continued to exist right down to the present day. Chandler is certainly not a lightweight.

I admit, I was a little apprehensive about picking up a Chandler novel because, much like my first Agatha Christie, I was certain I wasn't going to like it. But I approached The Big Sleep with an open mind. Maybe I would like this one. Maybe I've read all the wrong early 206th century detective novels. Maybe this one would change everything.

Turns out, I was right. I hated it. I should listen to myself more often.

Before anyone gets mad at me, I better take this opportunity to caveat this blog post with a few reading facts about myself. First, I really don't like detective novels or mysteries in general. Rarely does a mystery hold my attention. I really have a hard time maintaining a level of concern for the intricacies of the plot. I know that connoisseurs of the genre have the ability to pinpoint definitive clues and red herrings from the prose. I'm lucky if I can maintain the direction of the general plot. Somewhere in the middle of the first act I will miss a key plot device that will leave me with one foot out the door for the rest of the novel. Obviously it goes without saying that I will not be solving any mystery before the reveal. I just can't bring myself to care.

Mystery writers are trying to outsmart their smartest, most loyal readers. They take great pains to keep the reveal a secret to the very end of the story and, therefore throw all sorts of nonsense at the reader in an effort to deflect their attention away from the important issues. I am neither smart nor loyal so I get lost in the morass of false flags, red herrings and misleading tangents. What makes it worse, I get lost and I don't care. I simply shrug my shoulders and check to see how many more pages until a chapter break so I can nod off, guilt-free.

Second, I hate hard-boiled jargon. There's opacity to the language that makes me feel like I'm standing in a crowd of investment bankers or lighting technicians or something. It makes me feel the same as when two high school friends would be talking about a new band and you ask "who?" and they look at you as if you've lived the past three seasons under a a pile of dirty wrestling tights in the school gym. There is very little in this world I hate more than exclusionary jargon whether it's street lingo or managerial nonsense. The Big Sleep is full of this sort of language.

The Big Sleep is a mystery (strike one) that is rife with exclusionary jargon (strike two). It is also interesting that The Big Sleep is not only the title of this novel but also the effect it has on the reader. It's not a long novel, but it took me over a week to read because every single time I picked it up I would drift off into a dreamless slumber after a dozen pages. I swear, I've never felt so rested as I have during the reading of this novel. I averaged about ten hours of sleep a day throughout this novel. In that sense, it is I who got the big sleep, unwittingly.

Like all of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep centers around Detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by aged General Sternwood to investigate something or other to do with his naughty daughters (both of which throw themselves at Marlowe through the course of the book). There is something to do with a lost husband, pornography and a half dozen murders. It all happens at the excruciating slow pace of a bad Japanese horror movie and at no point could I have given a damn. Once the mystery is revealed I had simply lost all interest in every character in the novel and couldn't wait to be rid of the book.

Now, it's not all bad or else I would have put it down long before the end. Chandler does have a way with words. If you are a lover of language (and can wade through jargon to get to the good stuff), I have to admit that Chandler has a way with similes and comparisons. and for this alone, The Big Sleep is worth the price of admission. How could it not be when you get lines like: "Her legs were as long as a couple of Dickens' novel and I read them cover to cover." (note: I made that one up because I'm too lazy to open the book and find a real example even though the book is within arms length. I just don't care enough to be precise).

And to be fair, The Big Sleep does seem a little cliched and predictable from thdays perspective simply because the story has been regurgitated in lesser forms for over half a century via film, television and parodies. It has been the subject of imitation, lampoon and homage to the point that even those who have never even heard of The Big Sleep probably know enough aspects of the story to piece it together if they so wish. But historical and stylistic context still don't excuse the lack of a compelling story, and this is where Chandler fails in my mind, no mater if it's 1933 or 2013.

All in all, The Big Sleep is similar to eating crab from the shell. It's more trouble than it's worth what with the exclusionary language and the plodding pace of the mystery (that I couldn't care less about... did I mention that yet?). Sure there is some really sumptuous morsels of goodness buried deep in the shrapnel-like shell, but it's difficult to get to and not enough of it to make it entirely worth your while.

I'll pass on any more Raymond Chandler.


Brian Joseph said...

I have not read many works that fit into thus genre. However, if I ever read something, and I might, this book is a likely candidate as its fame precedes it. I think that a great book is a great book regardless of its genre. However based on your commentary this is not one of the greats. Sometimes a mediocre work does rise to great prominence and gets imitated.

Anonymous said...

Too bad you didn't like it, but well, there's no accounting for taste.

Whatever one's attraction to the genre, Chandler is a great writer. Precise prose, striking comparison, a gift for an atmosphere. I like him more for his prose, his picture of Los Angeles than for the mystery in itself. Marlowe is a great character, perhaps the DNA of the solitary PI who has values but flirts with the limits of the law.
Chandler is special because he's a literary writer, he went beyond the trashy crime novels (in French we call them "roman de gare", which means "railroad station books") and propelled this genre into the noble circle of literary fiction. He's a master.


Angling Saxon said...

Terrific review! You've articulated my own resistance to the genre better than I ever could. I found myself nodding in agreement with every paragraph. On the rare occasion that someone has asked me if I liked detective fiction I would simply shake my head in disagreement, but now you've provided me with several reasons I've always instinctively felt but never bothered to think about enough to reason into a coherent argument.

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