Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep packs quite a punch. It's supposed to be pretty much the definitive hard-boiled detective novel, and it certainly lives up to that description. Having read it, I now want to go and watch the film. It would be hard to pack as much story into a film as was in this rather slender (by today's standards) novel.

What I love about Chandler's work is the writing. You can't help but sit there in awe at the compact, urgent vitality of it. It is personified in the protagonist, Philip Marlowe, who is all that a hard-boiled detective ought to be - smart, wily, quick, honest (in general, not in specifics) and trustworthy. Marlowe is dragged into a morass of moral degradation and corruption, but comes through clean, and naturally with a clear idea of who the villains are and what they did. It's not a black and white outcome - characters in Chandler's world are all portrayed in various rather murky shades of grey, and villainy is a relative thing, not an absolute.

It was written in 1939, and bears the hallmarks of its era - there's no sign of war or world politics, and the west-coast USA is a dangerous place, full of thugs, petty criminals, and former bootleggers. The language is delightful - partly Chandler's turn of phrase, but partly the slang of the era (obscure enough that some of it could have used explanatory footnotes).

I'm not normally a fan of detective novels, but it's worth wading into the genre just to soak in the sparse, hard beauty of Chandler's words and characters.

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