Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

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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.

From the Forge: The Humanity of Anton Chekov

Anton Chekov in suit and tie

Anton Chekov

The Russian writer Anton Chekov is widely recognized as a master of short fiction. It is interesting that many people seem to dislike Chekov’s short stories because they tend to be open ended, lacking a comfortable, reassuring resolution. But Chekov’s place in the pantheon is secure. His influence on later writers has been enormous.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Siddahartha Mukherjee claims that Chekov “invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness.”

Sakhalin is the Russian island where Chekov spent three months at a penal colony, observing the suffering and the extreme depravity of humanity. His time there became a turning point in his life and his writing.

Mukherjee quotes Chekov as saying, “Six principles that make for a good story . . . are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.”

Anton Chekov and Leo Tolstoy 1900

Chekov and Tolstoy, Yalta 1900

The second and third of Chekov’s principles, “total objectivity” and “truthful descriptions,” no doubt come from his being a physician with a scientific turn of mind. His going to Sakhalin had more to do with Chekov the scientist than with Chekov the writer. But the last two of his six principles, “audacity and originality” and “compassion,” are perhaps the cause of his being so widely loved.

His “audacity and originality” are, I believe, part of why he insisted on the open endings of his stories. Open endings were not popular in the Victorian Period. The Victorians wanted the moral of the story to be clear. They wanted the good characters to end well and the bad characters to end badly. Chekov provides fully realized characters in a tragic situation, but offers no resolution. The reader must search for resolution in his or her own understanding.

But Chekov’s compassion for his characters, his intense feeling that they are simply human beings trapped in their circumstances, driven by their desires, endears him to readers. He does not judge his characters. He leaves judgment to the reader. But his sympathetic, humane treatment challenges readers to look in the mirror before they judge.

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