Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: June 2017

Style and Genre in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: It’s All About Style

It’s all about the style. I read Raymond Chandler‘s The Big Sleep because it’s a classic of crime fiction I should have read a long time ago.


As an example of the genre, it has everything a reader expects–the detective, the woman (three in this case), the hustler, the bad guy, the cops (crooked and straight), and so forth. But my recommendation on this novel has little to do with the genre. The plot is okay, nothing particularly thrilling. The hero, Philip Marlowe, is heroic and good, in the way that great literary P.I.’s are, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade–tough, big hearted, strict code of ethics that doesn’t always line up with law. Nope, that’s all fine, but it isn’t what made me say “Wow” again and again. It was the style.The Big Sleep cover photo style


Here’s a passage from Chapter Two, when Marlowe enters a greenhouse to meet a client. “The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.”

Okay, the first three sentences are stuffed with beautiful description of the air, the moisture, and the light, but it’s that fourth sentence that slays me. The “nasty, meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” Oh, my. Maybe that’s bad writing because it makes me stop and go back and read it again. And again. But I don’t think so. In fact I know it’s not so. That’s the kind of imagery, the kind of descriptive metaphor, that hammers a reader right between the eyes and sticks. I’d love to steal it for one of my novels. Maybe I will. Probably a lot of writers have.

And this passage is by no means an isolated occurrence. This kind of writing is typical in the novel. I’d like to know how many times I stopped and re-read a line and said, “Oh, man, that’s good.” So if you like crime fiction, you should read this book. But if you like crime fiction and masterful style, you have to read it.

Cursed, by Thomas Enger, a Review

I just finished reading a really good novel, sort of. Thomas Enger‘s novel Cursed is a good read. The characters are very human and engaging. I liked them and felt their pain and their (occasional) happiness. This was my first Enger novel, and I found his style attractive, above the average for the genre. But then, most Scandinavian crime writers are above average in their writing style. And their settings are dark and brooding, which I like in a crime novel. Their material is often referred to as Nordic NoirBook Cover, Cursed, by Thomas Enger

This novel develops three narrative arcs. First, the murder of a Swedish farmer and the disappearance of the adult daughter in a wealthy real estate family. As the novel progresses, the family’s dark secrets are gradually revealed. Second, the triangular relationships of journalist Henning Juul, his ex-partner Nora, also a journalist, and their colleague Iver. Henning and Nora have split up after losing their young son in an intentionally set fire. Nora is now in a relationship with Iver and is pregnant by him. And third, Henning’s attempt to find the person responsible for his son’s death. He is tortured by love for Nora and by the death of their son. Meanwhile, Nora is investigating the disappearance of the young woman, whom she knew in college. All three of these plot threads are handled beautifully as they are gradually intertwined and come together in the intense final chapters.

This is the fourth in Enger’s Henning Juul series, and the book seemed to function perfectly as a stand-alone novel, until I got to the final page. The ending was abrupt and dropped such a bizarre surprise, that I was confounded. I can only assume that it might make sense if I had read the earlier novels in the series. Perhaps someone who has read the earlier novels could confirm that for me. I confess that I liked the material enough that I will probably go back and try the earlier novels myself.

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