Monday, 26 November 2012

We Heartily Recommend... Three Books Beginning With B

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler

Of all of literatures great detectives, Philip Marlowe is one with which I can most identify. I'm a sucker for good prose and the way Marlowe's monologue flows from the page is one of life's simple joys.

But then Marlowe is unique amongst the great detectives. With Holmes, with Marple, with Sam Spade, we are never privy to their inner thoughts, only the occasional wry smile or raised eyebrow in response to a clue revealed. With The Big Sleep and its sequels we hear all too much of Marlowe's inner thoughts and his creator, Raymond Chandler, has to use different tricks than usual to keep the reader guessing. Marlowe describes what he discovers each stage of the way, but never what it all means until the end. He's tricksy, using creative double negatives and fantasies about the private lives of inanimate objects as distractions.

The plot of the Big Sleep is actually culled from a number a Chandler's short stories (as were most of the Marlowe novels). Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood because he is being blackmailed. Along the way Marlowe uncovers pornography and gambling debts and more blackmail and a lot of murder that needs solving.

The advantage of winding together a number of previously published stories is the multiple plot threads unwind so slowly that you barely notice what's really been going on. The true focus of Marlowe's investigation only becomes clear in the final reel. The real mystery in any Marlowe novel is always Marlowe himself. Not the best, but the best known and first of the novels. Read it and immediately move on to Farewell My Lovely and The Lady in the Lake.

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Of all the dystopian novels that came out of the first half of the twentieth century, Brave New World best speaks to the times in which we find ourselves. Nineteen-Eighty Four presented us with a vision of life after a Soviet victory. Brave New World shows the flip side of the coin: the nightmare of a consumerist future.

It is the twenty sixth century. Mankind has evolved beyond the need for procreation. Human beings are grown in laboratories, with their development fine tuned and intelligence and creative abilities only allowed to those at the top of the caste system. Sex is a purely recreational activity and pregnancy is regarded as taboo. Boredom and depression are controlled by drugs and the thought of spending time on one's own is considered idiotic.

Into this world enters John. John was born and raised outside of this new society. He grew up on a reservation in New Mexico with only a copy of the collected works of William Shakespeare for an education. He is taken to London and appalled by the immorality of human society, expressing his disgust through Shakespearean passages, including those famous words, 'Oh brave new world, that has such people in it'. It is meant ironically, as indeed did Shakespeare mean it ironically. Just one more English phrase, misused and misunderstood. Huxley returns it to its proper use.

George Orwell said of Nineteen-Eighty Four that it was useless to make predictions about the future as they all ultimately turned out wrong. Indeed, along with the likes of Space 1999 and 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction's attempts at predicting the future have been at times woeful. Brave New World feels different. This is tyranny through pleasure not brutality, where the disaffected only don't protest because disaffection has been breed out of them. And that's not a twenty sixth century concern, it's something humanity might have to deal with in the next half century. Brave New World is a good place to start revising.

Brighton Rock - Graham Greene

I have a lot of time for Graham Greene. I like people who are contradictions and Greene was certainly that. He converted to Roman Catholicism, was recruited into MI6 prior to World War Two, but also had affairs and spent time smoking opium in Vietnam. His books are comic and they are dramatic, his main characters hapless heroes or ruthless antiheroes. Pinkie Brown is Greene's most antisocial creation of all.

Brighton Rock is the tale of Pinkie's murder of a man called Hale and his efforts to conceal the crime. Pinkie is a young and precocious gangster. His murder of Hale triggers a ruthless grab of power and the narrative arc is like that of a seafront Richard III. Pinkie even has his Anne, a girl called Rose and the only person who could blow his alibi. Brighton Rock is a study in evil and the dark underbelly of Britain's seaside towns in the 1930s.

Graham Greene loved to travel and most of his best novels, Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American, Travels With My Aunt, are international affairs. British set novels like Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair tend to be less adventure romps and more treatises on the nature of religious morality. Pinkie and Rose are both Catholic and yet it is the irreligious Ida who pursues Hale's murderer. Like I said, I like contradictions. Greene had faith and yet he never stopped questioning religion or the people who use is as an excuse.

Brighton Rock is perhaps Greene's most famous novel, although I think he wrote better. Not many, but a few (see previous paragraph). Moreover, his novels have been generally well adapted for the cinema and Brighton Rock has had a couple of pretty good films of it made. Sam Riley is good as Pinkie in the 2010 version, but I still think Richard Attenborough nailed it in 1947. Attenborough captures Pinkie's heartlessness and ambition. Yet neither version takes massive liberties with the text and I can recommend both. Read the book first.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rob, found you through your post on LinkedIn. A great list of books and thanks for the informative synopses - you've reignited my determination to read Brave New World and maybe introduce myself to Marlowe too. Thankyou.