Sunday, 9 December 2012


Timeless classic The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler doesn't just grab you by the throat as you read - it's pins you up against the wall, holds you in a vice like grip, and refuses to let go until your eyes blur and can't stay on the page a minute longer.

Using harsh and tension filled prose that shows the seedy side of life in LA, Chandler colours a city black and white, pure and evil, with varying shades of grey. Rain lashes down endlessly as the plot gathers pace and we meet characters as dodgy as a bad fairground ride with a screw loose and as vulnerable as a toddler not strapped in.

I've never read the book before but Ive seen both 1946 and 1976 screen versions, my favourite being the Bogart/Bacall film noir that oozes sexual chemistry, life on the edge, and the seedy side of life for both rich and poor. It's a world of murder, porn, exploitation, blackmail, gambling, innuendo, drinking whiskey and rye and smoking. It's a world now gone - replaced with one far more dirty, less honourable among thieves, and much more shocking.

The Big Sleep keeps you on the edge but it's not frightening and in places is somewhat amusing for a thriller not written as a comedy. However, back in 1939 readers were less desensitised then they are today. Times change and the book stands witness to the underground of that era which contemporaries would have found shocking. Swearing is forbidden in line with the then then sensibilities and moralities. The most profane word used is "nuts," but homophobia is reeled off as an acceptable reaction to gay men, maybe because it was a crime back then, or maybe just because our parents' and grandparents' generation generally were less enlightened. Sexism is also rampant in the book - if somewhat charming and quaint at times.

The Big Sleep is one three crime novels that I've been studying in preparation as tutor of an eight week adult comparative literature course. The other two books we'll be looking at are Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid which will be a lovely counterbalance to Chandler's homophobia and a very different PI, and Bad Boy by Peter Robinson to compare the screen adaptations. Will the DCI Banks series become regarded as the same kind of classic - or are they as incomparable as a grey Plymouth and a Porsce 911?

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