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Two Short Reviews – The Big Sleep and Revolutionary Road

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The name of Raymond Chandler is fairly well known to me, but I wasn’t expecting to ever read one of his books. Since crime fiction isn’t really my thing, I reasoned, I had no interest in Chandler. This was a mistake, and one that I have partly rectified by reading The Big Sleep.

This is an exceptional novel and one that apparently set the standard of the crime fiction of the decades following its publication in 1939. I’m not an expert on this at all, so I won’t attempt to give a potted history here, but I can see how Chandler’s protagonist, Philip Marlowe, might have provided the archetype for the genre of detective fiction. Chandler’s late thirties Hollywood is a fascinating place, full of gangsters, crooked cops and pornography-peddling pederasts. There are gun battles, car chases and even someone who is murdered by being given a cup with cyanide in it. There’s a dying millionaire and his two wayward daughters, who spend their time drinking, gambling and trying to get into bed with our hero (who heroically demurs every time). This is the kind of thing that seems absurdly stereotypical now, but The Big Sleep is pulsing with life.

Chandler also proves himself to be a keen observer; his novel is full of surprising detail about a California that no longer exists in our own time. There’s a wry, world weary intelligence at work here. Marlowe is tough, but he isn’t a womaniser. He’s smart, but he manages to get himself into trouble at every turn. He’s a rounded character with strengths and weaknesses, and as such is a much more interesting character than the Supermen of today’s action blockbusters (e.g. Jason Bourne and James Bond). In summary, I was entralled by The Big Sleep. It didn’t take me more than around four hours to get through this, but it was four hours well spent. I look forward to reading more of Raymond Chandler.

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I had a hard time getting through Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, but now I’m glad I did. My initial indifference toward this novel was based on two factors: one, that it concerns the angst experienced by midde-class Americans in the middle of the twentieth century; and two, that I started reading this late at night, at an airport. The novel skips around a little in terms of viewpoint characters, but mostly focuses on the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, parents of two and inhabitants of a normal suburban estate called Revolutionary Road.

Yates is certainly a confident writer, but the subject matter left me cold for approximately the first half of the novel. It’s a domestic tragedy, and one that I felt built in momentum toward an admittedly impressive finale. One chapter toward the end, in which April Wheeler is thrown into a casual affair with her love-smitted neighbour, really caught my attention. There’s even a lunatic on a day-pass from the asylum, which gives me fond memories of Philip K. Dick’s Jack Isidore.

For me there wasn’t anything especially noteworthy about any of this. I can’t help but wonder what such affluent Americans had to be worried about, although worry they clearly did. Perhaps I am trying to say that I have more sympathy with a more working-class mentality than the one on evidence in Revolutionary Road. But it’s a stong novel nonetheless.

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