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The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

August 13, 2010 10 comments

  The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Translated by Boris Vian.

  It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

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.

 These are the first three paragraphs of The Big Sleep. In three paragraphs, I was in the book, totally caught by Chandler’s style and the essential of the story is already there. A private detective is hired by rich Mr Sternwood and has enough of chivalry to help him on another matter, although his help is not clearly wanted. In between, many adventures happen.

Right from the start, we learn some of the basic traits of Philip Marlowe’s temper. He is utterly professional and chivalrous. He dresses properly to meet a new client and he would have helped the knight of the stained-glass panel, for the sake of the lady in distress. But maybe this knight was purposely slow to spend more time near the lady, who was enjoying his slowness for the same reason and both would have been really put out if someone had taken the initiative to help him. Philip Marlowe wouldn’t have thought of this possibility because he cannot repress the envy to save a damsel in distress.

Being professional and chivalrous seem to be his guidelines: his moral code is built to respect these two principles, even if it means breaking the law.

 …

 Honestly, I’m struggling to write this post, always thinking that I’m either going to state the obvious or write something stupid. 

So I’m going to ask myself the basic question: Did I like this book ? The answer is YES, a thousand times yes. The Big Sleep is the kind of book I would have loved to read without stopping, by a rainy or very cold afternoon, curled up on a sofa with a huge pot of tea near me, if I still had the time to spend such afternoons. I enjoyed Chandler’s style and especially his odd and vivid way to describe people and places. I liked Philip Marlowe, the PI who doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t like cops’ wives. I’m curious to see how Chandler developed his character in the next novels.

 I want to read more.

 PS : A word about the translation. It’s excellent. I’ve always thought it helped to be translated by an actual writer, I’m not disappointed by Boris Vian. I’ve looked for quotes in English and compared them to the French translation, it’s perfect. Boris Vian managed to be faithful to Chandler and find the appropriate French expressions which give back the atmosphere of the English text.

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