“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“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.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

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“The Teleportation Accident” by Ned Beauman (2012)

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Send it to another place.

Send it to another place.

“When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriend’s lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex.”

It’s been a while, so if you have no other form of entertainment than this blog and have noticed I’ve been missing, you may be wondering where I’ve been. In the real world, I have been pony trekking in Somerset (just don’t ask) but in the literary world, I’ve been in 1930s Berlin and latterly Los Angeles, struggling with a dense novel. So here we go, with Ned Beauman’s second novel.

Boxer, Beetle was Beauman’s debut novel and I confess that it is one that entirely bypassed me, and I don’t know anything about it. Neither, as you’ll soon learn, do I much care to. I’m getting ahead of myself, because I don’t want to insult the book, so let’s cover the premise and then move on to critique.

In Berlin in the early 1930s, Egon Loeser, a set designer in the theatre, is struggling a contraption called a teleportation device that will move actors from one side of the stage to the other in a heartbeat, and also with a complete lack of sex. It hasn’t helped that his ex-girlfriend has just hooked up with someone else and he has just met Adele Hitler (no relation) and immediately fallen in love with her. Unfortunately, so has everyone else. Avoiding all other sexual interaction until he can have Adele, Loeser begins to slowly lose his mind and when he hears that she has left Berlin, he goes after her, following her to Paris and then Los Angeles. In America, however, he discovers that due to the events going on in Germany now under the charismatic new chancellor, almost everyone he knew has also one by one upped sticks and moved half a world away.

In Los Angeles, he continues seeking out Adele but gets mixed up with his favourite author Stent Mutton, and some scientists at CalTech who, among other strange and secret projects, are working on a teleportation device, only this one has grander applications than the theatre, if only Professor Bailey and his assistant can solve the riddle of how to make it work.

When it comes to the actual writing, Beauman is near enough a genius. He is funny, clever and good with words and I can’t take any of that away from him. When he describes a posh house as being somewhere Loeser feels that at all times he is being watched by either a live horse or a dead stag, that conjures up such vivid imagery about the kind of house we can all picture. However, it’s a dense book. It isn’t hugely long, but Beauman is a fan of the long-winded paragraph giving the book a somewhat daunting density that is hard for a reader to maintain for long. The characters, while not exactly wooden, do not appeal particularly in any way. By the time I got to the last second twist (and, objectively, it is quite a good one), I had long stopped caring. It appears to have been recieved favourably, however, having even been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. But it reads exactly like a book longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, almost as if there was a space open on the list and the book was written especially for the role. Take that how you will.

It’s clever, but it knows it. It’s funny, but with a nod and a wink towards the audience. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t like it enough. I just have absolutely no strong feelings about this book either way. It filled up nine days of my life which was about five too many, and I will forever equate it with the burning in my thighs after an afternoon on a horse.

I did look up Boxer, Beetle briefly and found a review on Amazon from user ThugEarwig that said of it, “I strongly suspect it was written in a coffee shop. On a Mac.” This is exactly the feeling that I have about this book too, so thank you for that Mr Earwig. More succintly and intelligently put than I could ever manage.

If you’re interested in reading more of my work, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon, iTunes or any other ebook retailer.

“This Book Will Save Your Life” by A. M. Homes (2006)

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ThisBookWillSave_1

One of literature’s most delicious covers.

“He stands at the glass looking out.”

Los Angeles is not somewhere I have particular dreams of visiting, although, like all creatives, the idea has naturally crossed my mind. It is the home of film and fiction and fantasy – all writers, actors and artists should end up there eventually. A city where it’s always sunny and everyone’s beautiful and no one cares about money because everyone’s got more than they know what to do with. But, when it comes down to it, I honestly don’t think I could bear the relentless sun, beautiful people tend to be boring, and I’ve got enough money for my book and wine based needs.

Still, I picked up this book and stepped into LA anyway. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Richard Novak lives an almost reclusive life, only speaking to his cleaner, nutritionist and personal trainer, and never really leaving his house unless necessary. He works in finance, does something with stocks and shares, and is doing very well for himself. And then, one night, he gets an excruciating pain throughout his body. Unable to be sure if it has just come on, or it’s always been there and he’s been ignoring it, he calls 911 and is taken to hospital. Doctors cannot find anything wrong with him and send him on his way.

But his life has changed in ways he could not have imagined. He stops at a donut shop on his way back ffrom the hospital and meets Adhil, a hardworking immigrant with a love of fine cars and well made pastry. Finally cracking out of his shell, he begins to expand his social circle. There’s Cynthia, a depressed housewife whom he meets when she’s crying in the produce aisle of a supermarket; Nic, his new next door neighbour who occasionally looks like he might be homeless; Dr Lusardi, the one physician who seems to actually care about Richard as a person; and Tad Ford, the competitive but down-to-earth movie star.

Then Richard speaks to his ex-wife and finds out that his son, Ben, is travelling across the country and wants to see him. Richard has barely seen him since he walked out on them over a decade ago and begins to wonder if he and his son can rekindle their relationship and get to know one another.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book. Someone told me once that not much happens in it, but that’s sort of misleading. A lot does happen, but a lot of it is terribly mundane. It’s also very weird. Richard becomes a sort of “freak magnet” with numerous bizarre things beginning to happen to him, such as his house falling into a sinkhole, becoming involved in the rescue of a horse alongside a famous movie star and his helicopter, adopting a stray dog, going away on a silent retreat and investing in a donut shop. There are whole passages that seem to make no sense, that don’t further the story or seem to fit with anything else, but afterwards they are clear as more and more signs that Richard is returning to the real world, to society.

It’s a book with a lot of heart, effectively about a man having a mid-life crisis and sorting himself out again with the support of a colourful cast of characters around him. Everyone is a bit screwed up, but fundamentally, most (if not all) of the characters are good people with good intentions. The book has a good feeling of “you are not alone”, that there are things to do out there if you just go and look for them. Sitting at home and counting your money is fine if that’s how you want to live, but there’s a big world out there full of interesting people who all know things that you don’t, and sometimes life needs to be more of an adventure. Less time spent playing Candy Crush, more time spent visiting strangers in nursing homes, having dinner with the rich and famous, or just eating glazed raspberry donuts.

And who knows? Maybe this book will save your life.