Monday, August 24, 2009

The Big Sleep

Title: The Big Sleep
Author: Raymond Chandler

What it's about: Private investigator Philip Marlowe is on a case. He's supposed to investigate the blackmailing of the daughter of General Sternwood, an old man with two daughters. It's a simple enough matter. Tail the fellow who's doing the blackmailing and then advise the general about whether to pay up or take other action. But things get a little tricky when the suspect gets murdered and one of the Sternwood daughters shows up on the scene.

What I thought: Ah, now this is a mystery! It's everything you could want in a detective novel. There's a hard-boiled protagonist, mysterious dames, crime lords, menacing henchmen, plenty of cigarette smoking and consumption of liquor, the works. But it's not flat. Marlowe is unexpectedly deep, and honorable, too. Unlike Sam Spade, who I always though of as rather a jerk, Marlowe is philosophical and principled. He's loyal to his client, works with the law as best as he can without compromising the client, doesn't pack heat unless it's necessary, things like that. The review on the back of the book called Marlow a "slumming angel," which I find an immensely poetic and accurate description of his character. The California of The Big Sleep is depicted in shadowed words, as a fallen place. Marlowe presents a principled figure beaten down by the shady circumstances which surround him. Ah, but I digress. On the subject of the mystery itself, it's well constructed, with a convoluted plot that nonetheless works itself out in its beautifully depressing ending.

Overall: An archetypal detective novel that's a classic and a must-read.


Title: Alchemy
Author: Margaret Mahy

What it's about: So Roland's a normal high school student. Good grades, well-liked, great girlfriend. Life's going pretty well, a nice change from his younger years when his father left his family and his mother had to struggle to raise him and his two brothers. But then Roland's teacher confronts him about some shoplifting he did. Instead of reporting Roland, however, Mr. Hudson makes a curious deal with him: befriend class outcast Jess Ferret and report to him on her. Roland agrees because it seems a lot better than harming his reputation, but Jess Ferret turns out to be more than your normal unpopular girl. There's something strange about her, and it seems to be connected to a suppressed strangeness in Roland himself.

What I thought: I read this book once quite a few years ago and remember finding it really strange and hard to read. It's actually not. This is a good piece of light fantasy. Roland's a well developed character, complex, but not in a way that a seventeen-year-old boy wouldn't be. The climactic encounter of the book is weird, but in a Diana Wynne Jones sort of way, in that while it's describing very out of the ordinary things, you're able to follow what's going on and it all makes sense and doesn't feel like the author's just pulling crap outta thin air. This book mixes the mundane and the arcane in a very enjoyable manner, basically. You get domestic scenes followed by discussion of alchemy and the powers of the world, and it works. There's some interesting insights, too, on the nature of the world and how people view it.

Overall: Definitely a unique book and worth a try for open-minded fantasy fans.