Fiction: “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler

I had originally read this back in my first series of college. I was taking a topics in English Lit class, titled “Women in Detective Fiction.” We started with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and ended somewhere around Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. This was one of the novels in the middle.

When I decided to reread it (mainly in a pique of Book ADD – I had just finished Kitchen Confidential, hadn’t decided on another book to read, and didn’t feel comfortable bringing Bound and Determined in to work to read on my lunch break), I knew that it had been assigned way back when because of the sisters in the book, but couldn’t remember what role they each played. To discuss it here would be to give the entire plot of the book away, and since I just spent the past eight hours giving the end of Sunset Boulevard away in a PowerPoint presentation for my Intro to Communication class, I think I’ll take my SPOILER ALERT hat off and just talk about the private detective at the heart of the novel, Philip Marlowe.

Philip Marlowe was eternalized onscreen by Humphrey Bogart in the film adaptation of The Big Sleep. I have seen a couple of Bogey movies, though Big Sleep has not been one of them. (Literally a couple, as it turns out: Sabrina and Casablanca – huh.) I was able to picture Bogey throughout the novel, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, with a cigarette constantly hanging from the corner of his mouth.

Our first interaction with Marlowe is as he approaches the Sternwood mansion. General Sternwood, a man on his deathbed with two ‘wild daughters’ has asked Marlowe to his house to investigate a blackmail note sent regarding his youngest (and wildest), Carmen. Marlowe waits in the hallway, and takes note of the decoration:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying. [1-2]

What I remember discussing in class — not sure now if it was in a paper or not — was how that last sentence thoroughly explained Marlowe’s character. He can’t not help people in trouble, regardless of the level of danger involved or the character of the rescuee. If he sees a naked woman tied to a tree, he’s going to march over there, get her free, and make her put some clothes on, not take advantage of the situation and leer while ‘trying’ to free her.

For instance: later in the novel, young Carmen Sternwood shows up naked in Marlowe’s bed, and he tries to get her out of it by appealing to her daughterly side:

“It isn’t account of the neighbors,” I told her. “They don’t really care a lot. There’s a lot of stray broads in any apartment house and one more won’t make the building rock. It’s a question of professional pride. You know — professional pride. I’m working for your father. He’s a sick man, very frail, very helpless. He sort of trusts me not to pull any stunts. Won’t you please get dressed, Carmen?”

“Your name isn’t Doghouse Reilly,” she said. “It’s Philip Marlowe. You can’t fool me.”

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. [156]

Here, the motif of Marlowe-as-Knight continues, and reemphasizes the fact that Marlowe is out of place in this crime-ridden city, holding onto his principles and honor in the face of all this immorality:

“I don’t like it,” I said. But what the hell am I to do? I’m on a case. I’m selling what I have to sell to make a living. What little guts and intelligence the Lord gave me and a willingness to get pushed around in order to protect a client. It’s against my principles to tell as much as I’ve told tonight, without consulting the General. As for the cover-up, I’ve been in police business myself, as you know. They come a dime a dozen in any big city. Cops get very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same things themselves every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull. And I’m not through. I’m still on the case. I’d do the same thing again, if I had to.” [114]

And the cops are crooked. Half of the force we meet are on Eddie Mars’s* payroll. Eddie Mars is one of the antagonists Marlowe encounters in his quest to first, find Carmen’s blackmailer, and second, find Vivian Sternwood Regan’s missing husband, Terrance Regan:

“If Geiger’s death had been reported last night, the books could never have been moved from the store to Brody’s apartment. The kid wouldn’t have been led to Brody and wouldn’t have killed him. Say Brody was living on borrowed time. His kind usually are. But a life is a life.”

“Right,” I said. “Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”

*Fun Fact!: Eddie Mars is also the name of the marshal who captured Kate in Australia and tried to bring her home on Oceanic 815. I HAVE BEEN WATCHING TOO MUCH LOST.

So, aside from Marlowe being a knight in the midst of crooked larceny and such, what exactly goes on in The Big Sleep? General Sternwood calls Marlowe in to have investigate an Arthur Geiger, who has blackmailed Sternwood over his daughter’s gambling debt. It turns out it’s not a gambling debt, but involvement in a pornography ring that grew out of control. There are many hands in this black pot. In addition to following the thread through all of the suspects, Marlowe is also looking for Sternwood’s daughter Vivian’s missing husband, Regan. Sternwood took a fancy to Regan and misses him, and Marlowe wants to give the old man some comfort in his waning years.

I struggled with what genre, exactly, to put this novel in. Is it classic literature? Contemporary literature? Legal/Crime? I leaned heavily to Pulp, but it’s almost of a higher class than pulp (although what do I know, I’ve only read one true title in pulp fiction). I ended up with Mystery, because after all, the main point of the story is that Marlowe is trying to figure out what happened to Regan, and that doesn’t get solved until the final fifteen pages of the book.

Like pulp, the novel has a distinct way of talking (if you will). Short, to the point, almost choppy, even, with a great rhythym:

A fresh-faced kid was reading a horror magazine behind the wheel. I leaned in and showed him a dollar: “Tail job?”

He looked me over. “Cop?”

“Private.”

He grinned. “My meat, Jack.” [53]

I love a) the sound of this exchange, and b) that this kid will work for a dollar.

Another kid is fond of swearing:

“You must have thought a lot of that queen,” I said.

“Go —– yourself,” the boy said softly, motionless between the parked cars and the five-foot retaining wall on the inside of the sidewalk. [97-98]

That’s actually how it’s printed. I love that —–: blocking out swears by using hyphens. I’m going to start doing that from now on. (no, i won’t.)

This made me chuckle:

Shaved, dressed and lightly breakfasted I was at the Hall of Justice in less than an hour. [44]

… but only because I pictured Marlowe showing up at the Hall of the Justice League.

Finally, the entire 1930s Hollywood crime genre is summed up thusly:

“A guy named Geiger who ran a dirty book racket in a store on Hollywood Boulevard. Geiger was living with the punk I got outside in my car. I mean living with him, if you get the idea.”

Cronjager was staring at him levelly now. “That sounds like it might grow up to be a dirty story,” he said.

“It’s my experience most police stories are…” [108]

Grade for The Big Sleep: 4 stars

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Fiction: “Bound and Determined” by Shayla Black

It should not take someone a month to read Midwestern Philosophy. Midwestern Philosophy should not be so boring. And I’m sorry, but this one was. Horrifically boring. And look, Midwestern Philosophy plots are supposed to be ludicrous. In fact, here on loan from the American Midwestern Philosophical Society is an Actual Scientist with the Actual Scientific Formula for Midwestern Philosophy:

Man + Woman
———————-    x   Close Quarters = Sex every other chapter
Crazy Plot

(yes, it’s an actual formula. created by scientists. or, philosophers. whatever.)

And going hand in hand with ludicrous plots is the idea that you are to read Midwestern Philosophy at Ludicrous Speed. One should not be spending a month trying to get through the Ludicrous Plot to get to (or through) The Good Stuff.

Here’s the gist: Kerry’s brother, Mark, has been framed for embezzlement at his job at this bank. There’s this supersmart and superhott (yes, with two t’s) computer geek named Rafe, and Kerry tries to call him and ask him to help her brother out, and it’s convenient, because he’s coming to Tampa anyway (seriously? what great romance ever happened in Tampa?) to help with security measures at That Same Bank. But when he refuses, rudely, instead of giving up and going on with her life and hoping for a miracle, she KIDNAPS HIM FROM THE AIRPORT. She takes her to her adopted uncle’s Love Shack on the Beach (because of course one exists) and when Rafe realizes that he hates the idea of bullying her into leaving, he agrees to broker a deal: he’ll help her try to prove her brother innocent, and he gets to have sex with her for the entire weekend.

Surprisingly, no one’s Virgin Alarm went off (TM – it’s programmed to go off before you do!). Surprising, because Kerry is a virgin. Usually in Midwestern Philosophy, that card has already been played. But, whatever, because even though he was rude on the phone (horrors!), Kerry is Very Attracted to Rafe, and totally agrees with no pressure.

And … *sigh* The ‘mystery,’ if you dare to call it that, is predictable. The story sets up three people who could be the embezzeler, and of course only two of them have a real motive (and one of them is supposedly ‘in Love’ with Kerry, which Kerry doesn’t believe), and it turns out it’s the third. But she wasn’t just doing this for the money; she was doing it for a shitload of money!

In the end, as tends to happen, love conquers all and all that crap. And apparently, for a virgin, she gives great helmet. (sorry – I couldn’t resist.)

I wasn’t going to do this, because really, I don’t want to degrade the value of the label on something like this, but I really feel that this book deserves a Chuck Bass Stamp of Disapproval:

Look at him. He’s totally saying, “Why Shayla Black, you can’t possibly comprehend the magnitude of what you’ve done. Not only have you bored the upper Northeastern version of Blair Waldorf to tears, but you have managed to earn my disapproval. My cardigan has more sexual appeal than that escapade in Chapter Five. Frankly, your sex scenes lack imagination, and I can’t be bothered to assist you in that arena at the moment. My sister, however, is probably available, and Lord knows she’ll sleep with anything. She slept with Humphrey. Also, I’d like to point out that my cardigan has sharks on it. I’m surprised you didn’t throw in a shark attack; you did set your story in Florida. Oh, goodness, look at the time. I must be off; I have important, wealthy things to go succeed at, because I’m Chuck Bass. My final word of advice: be more like me; be more evil. For evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

Grade for Bound and Determined: Twilight stars

Non-Fiction: “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain

Yes, I did the thing where I read one book about a waiter at a high-end New York City restaurant and then turned around and read the book about a chef at a high-end New York City restaurant. Admittedly, Anthony Bourdain is much more widely-known, and also, I’ve read this book twice before.

The book kind of goes all over the place – it starts with Anthony’s childhood and a trip to France with his parents and brother. The summer started with he and his brother acting like normal tourist kids: asking for hamburgers and complaining about the cheese. After his parents lock* them in the car so they can enjoy a traditional French dinner without the kids, Young Tony realizes that Food is Good. This causes him to try anything and everything he can get his hands on, including a raw oyster. This essentially seals the deal for him going into a culinary career.

[*Sidenote: I seriously just typed that “locke.” I HAVE BEEN WATCHING TOO MUCH LOST.]

And his career, to start, was rocky. Starting in Provincetown (P-Town, to New Englanders) as a dishwasher, he quickly moved up to line cook. After an embarrassing moment, he decides to join the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, for all you non-foodies out there). He goes back to P-Town and gets a swelled head. After another summer, he hits New York.

Tony writes like a chef – direct, full of expletives, humorous. There is an entire chapter of the language that cooks use, both epithets, euphemisms and actual swear words. And, with an emotion that I’ve felt at times:

The tone of the repartee was familiar, as was the subject matter, a strangely comfortable background music to most of my waking hours over the last two decades or so — and I realized that, my God … I’ve been listening to the same conversation for twenty-five years! [220]

Some other fun moments:

“Who’s making food these days that interests you?” I asked.

“Oh, let’s see … Tom. Tom Collicchio at Gramercy Tavern. Tom makes really good food … and Rocco di Spirito at Union Pacific is doing interesting stuff.” [266]

Tom Collicchio! The best part of Top Chef! (yes, I watch that show. shut up, it’s awesome.) He is a cold-hearted bitch: all he cares about is the food. And I love him.

In one chapter, Tony describes one of his crew: Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown. A great bread man, but an overall crazy person. One day, Tony and his wife decide to invite Adam skiing:

And [Adam] skied like a hero, though he’s the last person in the world who should be allowed. He had his ski boots on the wrong feet for the first hour. He had neglected to bring gloves or mittens. He lost a ski pole. [240]

I can imagine that this is what I would be like when I dare to go skiing (I never have).

At the end of the book (don’t worry, I’m returning to the meat of it in a minute – heh, meat, because he’s a chef, and … yeah, sorry, I’m done) Tony travels to Les Halles Tokyo and is enraptured with the Japanese culture and, most importantly, food. He spends his days wandering the town on foot, trying everything he can. The Friday or Saturday night he’s there, he encounters this:

Mobs of people surged in never-ending waves toward Shibuya station to meet friends and lovers by the statue of a dog. The dog, it was explained to me, had continued to show up every day at the station, long after its master had died. [285]

Why is this important? It’s not really, not in the grand scheme of the book. Why it stood out to me was because last week, Lisa, with whom I work, asked me if I had ever watched this movie about a dog who is adopted by his master, and he loves him so much he follows him to the train station every day, and then one day, the master dies, but the dog doesn’t really realize it, so he still waits for him at the train station, and oh my god you guys, I was tearing up listening to Lisa tell the story. Not only that, but it made me think of that episode of Futurama where Fry’s dog has been frozen in cement and he wants Seymour to be reanimated, but then they can’t, and the episode ends with Seymour sitting in front of Panucci’s Pizza waiting for Fry to come home and the dog just keeps getting older and older and OH MY GOD FUTURAMA YOU BROKE ME JUST NOW.

Anyway. Lisa just told me about that movie, and I wanted to reread Kitchen Confidential before lending it to … Lisa. Coincidence? You decide.

So here’s what this book always inspires in me: a chance to be daring in my food. I am an aspiring foodie, but I lack the guts to back it up. I am a picky eater. If I go out to a restaurant and see a menu with a couple of dishes where I know the ingredients and know that I like the ingredients, I will most likely order it. If I don’t, I don’t try it. How sad is that? Reading this book always makes me want to experiment with food.

I mean, how inspiring is this?:

They say that Rasputin used to eat a little arsenic with breakfast every day, building up resistance for the day that an enemy might poison him, and that sounds like good sense to me. Judging from accounts of his death, the Mad Monk wasn’t fazed at all by the stuff … perhaps we, as serious diners, should emulate his example. We are, after all, citizens of the world — a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly. Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed pope-mobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. [p. 74-75]

Every time. Every time I read that, I want to rush out and try the craziest restaurant, spend a hundred dollars or more and try everything.

But I usually end up going to a chain restaurant instead. And really, how sad is that?

Grade for Kitchen Confidential: 5 stars