The Big Sleep // by Raymond Chandler

//published 1939//

I’ve recently subscribed to two book boxes, one of which sends very new books (like the one I reviewed here), but the other, Bookishly, sends an older, used, somewhat classic book every month, along with some tea and other small goodies, like a notecard or notebook.  This one comes from England, and I have quite enjoyed getting some of the very classic Penguin editions that are different from what we have here stateside.

Anyway, one of the books I got was Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.  When I realized that it was the second book in a mystery series staring a private detective named Phillip Marlowe, one of the founders of the ‘hard-boiled detective’ genre, I decided to start with book one, The Big Sleep.  

I genuinely had no idea what to expect, but was immediately captivated by Marlowe, who is not only the main character but also the narrator.

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 blue clocks on them.  I was neat, clean, shaven and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.  I was everything well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars.

This book was originally published in 1939, and I can see it offending some, as it contains much of the casual prejudices and racism of the day.  (And honestly, some of the negative reviews on Goodreads had my eyes rolling practically out of my head… why do people read books published almost 80 years ago and then get offended that the people in them have a completely different worldview?!  How ignorant do you have to be to not expect that…???)  But at the same time, its very casualness of those prejudices is incredibly revealing of its time, and an intriguing reminder of how times have changed.  For instance, I don’t think anyone could get away with writing anything like this –

“Don’t kid me, son.  The fag gave you one.  You’ve got a nice clean manly little room in there.  He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors.  He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men.  Think I can’t figure people like you out?”  …  he swung on me … it caught me flush on the chin.  I backstepped enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of punch.  It was meant to be a heard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.

But it’s not really an overwhelming bit of the story, and the majority of Marlowe’s narration is genuinely hilarious and Chandler’s knack for writing conversation is brilliant; I found myself snorting with laughter on more than one occasion over bits like this –

Her hot black eyes looked mad.  “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped.  “And I don’t like your manners.”

“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said.  “I didn’t ask to see you.  You sent for me.  I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle.  I don’t mind your showing me your legs.  They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance.  I don’t mind that you don’t like my manners.  They’re pretty bad.  I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.  But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

This wasn’t a story full of action.  Marlowe meanders about making his own observations and doing his own thing, but we’re privy to pretty much everything he knows and does.  Chandler isn’t afraid to kill people off, and there are multiple corpses throughout, but nothing gory and no one dies that you’re particularly sad to see go.

While the old-fashioned prejudices may have been rather offensive, the old-fashioned morals aren’t, and I loved how the language in this book never went stronger than a ‘damn,’ and how a few criminals were running a pornography business, which seemed to genuinely disgust the majority of the characters.  I also really liked the Marlowe didn’t fall into bed with any of the women about – he’s way too crafty to fall for their lures, and it says a lot about his overall character, which is actually rather philosophical and introspective, despite his rough-and-ready exterior.

At one point, Marlowe has apprehended a possible bad guy.  When he confronts the kid, the kid responds with “Go _____ yourself” – blank included in the original text.  And that seems to be this kid’s default response to everything, although Chandler manages to mix it up quite a bit with things like, “He spoke three words to me and kept on driving,” or “the kid shrugged and said his three favorite words.”

Despite Marlowe’s hard image, I appreciated that he was genuinely disturbed by the easy murder of one of the characters, even if that character was a bit of a skunk.  There is so much drinking and smoking in this book that I was cracking up – for instance, I’m not sure if even the leaders of criminal rings these days have their own monogrammed cigarettes.

While I wasn’t racing to the ending in desperate fear of Marlowe’s life, I still really wanted to see how things were going to unwind, and with sentences like, “She’d make a jazzy weekend, but she’d be wearing for a steady diet,” luring me along, I found myself thoroughly immersed every time I picked up the book.

I’m looking forward to continuing Marlowe’s acquaintance.  There are only eight books total, plus a ninth that Chandler had partially written at the time of his death and was later finished by another author.  The Big Sleep was an easy 3.5/5, and a really fun start to a series.

#18 for #20BooksofSummer!

The Silent Sister // by Diane Chamberlain

//published 2014//

I had some mixed feelings about this book.  It kept me thoroughly engaged while I was reading it, but a few different things made me uncomfortable during the story, and I found the ending to be unsatisfactory.  In the end, I think it has to go as a 3/5.  I don’t particularly recommend it, and it’s the sort of book that made me feel that while I wouldn’t avoid Chamberlain’s books in the future, I’m not anxious to seek them out, either.

The story mostly centers around Riley, aged 25, whose father has just passed away.  Riley has returned home to go through his house (her mother passed away just after her senior year of high school) and get it ready to sell.  Riley loved her father and had a good relationship with him, so she’s quite devastated by his sudden death, and that’s amplified by the way that she feels that she is all alone in the world – her older sister committed suicide when Riley was only two, and Riley’s older brother, Danny, suffers from severe PSTD that leaves him unreliable and unpredictable.  He also harbors deep resentment towards their parents (which Riley doesn’t understand) and is completely disinterested in cleaning out the house or reliving memories of any kind.

As the tale unwinds, Riley begins to discover that her dad was actually keeping quite a few secrets, including a major one about her sister.  At this point, the story also begins to give us Lisa’s story from twenty years earlier.

This is a well-written and engaging narrative.  Riley uses the first person for her sections, past tense.  She is likable and kind and very lonely.  Lisa’s section are in third person, but that doesn’t prevent her from being a very relatable character.  I was really hooked into this story from the very beginning.

However, there were several things that gave me unease.  One of the biggest is when Lisa meets Celia.  After spending the evening together, Celia stays the night (romantically) – despite the fact that they had only met that day AND until she met Celia, Lisa didn’t realize she was gay.  It seemed kind of ridiculous and unhealthy for Lisa to immediately get in bed with someone on such short acquaintance, especially when she hasn’t actually sorted through her sexual orientation??  Of course it all works out and they stay together forever because that’s what always happens when you hop in bed with someone you’ve only known about eight hours.  This situation became even more disturbing when more details about Lisa’s childhood were revealed.

I was also a smidge offended by the fact that, of course, the traditional, conservative church was the home of a bunch of hypocritical self-centered people who “push away” people going through a crisis; while the church that is “open and affirming” to gay people are the ones who are so supportive and loving to everyone, no matter what!  I’m sorry, but believing that homosexuality isn’t Scriptural doesn’t automatically mean that I hate gay people or that I’m unwilling to help out people who are going through a dark time in their life.  This wasn’t a huge part of this book by any means, but it was a completely unnecessary dig.

It also seemed really weird to me that part of Riley’s back story was that she had just broken up with her boyfriend of two years – because he had never divorced his wife?!?!?  That seemed unnecessarily wrong, and it honestly changed my perspective of who Riley was as a person.  Like wow, she’s just been an adulterer for two years??  That seems… disturbing?

The rest of my angst I’ll put below the cut as they involve spoilers.  This wasn’t a terrible book by any means.  I really was very engaged with the story and anxious to find out how it ended.  But I felt like justice was not served by the conclusion and it left me feeling rather angry, this concept that this person “deserves” a good life, rather than deserving what they earned through their actions.  So yes, a 3/5.  And for a more positive review, be sure to check out Carol’s thoughts, which first led me to this book!

Also – #14 for #20BooksofSummer!

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Jamaica Inn // by Daphne du Maurier

//published 1935//

Overall, I wanted to like Jamaica Inn, but just found it too, too depressing.

Mary’s mother has died and Mary is going to live with her only remaining relative, her mother’s sister Patience.  Aunt Patience is married to an innkeeper named Joss.  But when Mary (who is a young woman of 23, not a child, by the way) arrives at Jamaica Inn, she finds it to be a frightening and lonely place that discourages visitors.  Joss is a strong, terrible man, and Aunt Patience is a shadow of her former self.  As the story progresses, Mary discovers various evil and terrible things going on around the inn, but feels unable to speak out against them because of how the destruction of Joss would devastate Patience.

Many of the descriptions are rather melodramatic, but excellent nonetheless.  Du Maurier has a knack of describing people in a way that makes them quite easy to picture – perhaps aided by the fact that nearly everyone in this book is practically a caricature.

In both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachelwe are given a first person perspective from a possibly unreliable narrator.  Much of tension from both of those books is not knowing how much of what we hear is actual truth, and how much of it is simply in the mind of the narrator.  But in Jamaica Inn, the story is much more straightforward, a more traditional Gothic novel, with smugglers and dark, sweeping moors, and an innocent young woman caught up in circumstances beyond her control.  It wasn’t exactly boring, but it almost was.  While in Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel I was constantly guessing as the guilt and innocence to the very end, I really had Jamaica Inn figured out about a third of the way through; the book felt almost formulaic.

Throughout, I couldn’t tell if du Maurier was trying to make a point about the situation of women in society or what, but she constantly, and I do mean constantly, harps on how hopeless and almost pointless the existence of women is, because they are so dependent on men.  Of Aunt Patience she says –

“You mustn’t mind your uncle Joss,” [Aunt Patience] said, her manner changing suddenly, fawning almost, like a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience, and who, in spite of kicks and curses, will fight like a tiger for its master.

And really, that sums up the way both sexes are portrayed throughout.  The women – downtrodden, hopelessly bound by love and loyalty; the men – vacillating between cruelty and indifference.

Even Mary herself, who claims that she will always be independent and strong, and will never fall in love or put herself into a place where a man has control over her, falls in love “against her will” –

And there, in spite of herself, came [his] face again, with growth of beard like a tramp, and his dirty shirt, and his  bold offensive stare.  He lacked tenderness; he was rude; and he had more than a streak of cruelty in him; he was a thief and a liar.  He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.  Nature cared nothing for prejudice.  Men and women were like the animals on the farm at Helford, she supposed; there was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another.  This was no choice of the mind.

Later in the same chapter she is thinking about how back at home she would see people in love, but after they married –

…when the lad came home at evening tired from his work in the fields, and calling sharply that his supper was burnt, not fit for a dog, while the girl snapped back at him from the  bedroom overhead, her figure sagging and her curls gone, pacing backward and forward with a bundle in her arms that mewed like a cat and would not sleep.  There was no talk then of the moonlight on the water.  No, Mary had no illusions about romance.  Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.

Just…  ugh.  So hopeless, not just about love, but about life – that all we are is unthinking animals who know nothing better than to find someone to whom we have a spark of attraction that we may breed – no hope of any kind of long-lasting affection or companionship – just drudgery and darkness.

And that’s what this book was, consistently, throughout every page.  Drudgery and darkness.  Complete hopelessness.  In the end, Mary goes off with with this man who stands “for everything she feared and hated and despised” – and there is no sign whatsoever that he is not all of the things she lists off in that paragraph.  And so Mary, despite knowing that her life will probably be miserable, purposefully chooses to go with him!  I had already lost all my respect for Mary about halfway through the book; for all her claims to be strong and saucy, she really isn’t terribly smart and is already completely resigned to a life just as miserable as Aunt Patience’s (even though Mary spends a great deal of time despising her Aunt Patience for her loyalty to Joss).

In the end, du Maurier leaves us with nothing.  Christianity is “built upon a fairy tale.  Christ himself is a figurehead, a puppet thing created by man himself.”  Humans are nothing more than animals who can never expect to be anything better.  Women will forever be subservient to men because they will always choose to be loyal to a man, even if he is cruel – which he will be, because all men are so instinctively, desiring nothing more than to crush all who are weaker than they are.

The picturesque descriptions of the moors and the attempt at a mystery were not enough to overcome the darkness and hopelessness of this story for me.  2/5 and not recommended.

However, I will say that both Rose Reads Novels and That’s What She Read are more generous than I am, so you may want to check out their reviews for some balance.  ;-)

#13 for #20BooksofSummer!

(#12 will be reviewed at the end of the month in July’s minireviews.)

Woman With a Gun // by Phillip Margolin

//published 2014//

Last fall I had the pleasure of reading through Margolin’s Amanda Jaffe series.  The series as a whole was an easy 4/5 for me, and I really enjoyed them.  Unfortunately, Margolin has written several other novels, so enjoying those books meant that multiple titles got added to the TBR, and Woman With a Gun is the first of them I’ve read.

I really liked the pacing of this story.  We start in 2015 with Stacey, who is trying to write a novel but is feeling rather uninspired.  To pay the bills, she’s working as a legal assistant and finds it soul-suckingly boring.  (Aside: I empathize!)  On lunch one day she stops to see an art exhibit, but is drawn to a series of photographs.  When she sees the photograph that’s on the cover of this book, she is completely enamored – she can see an entire story waiting to be told.

The next section tells us the story of the photograph – the Cahill case from 2005.  A strange and mysterious murder that was never satisfactorily resolved…

I have mixed feelings about books that jump backward and forward in time, but Margolin handles it very well in this one.  I really liked that instead of using flashbacks or alternating chapters, large chunks of book are in one time before switching to another – there are only actually five parts to the  book: 2015, 2005, 2000, 2005, 2015 – which also works very well, as we slowly work our way back in time to understand what is going on, and then forward in time to find resolution.

The story was quite gripping, and I was lucky enough to start this on a lazy Sunday, and read it pretty much all in one go.  I was completely engrossed in the tale and anxious to find out who the killer really was.  It’s really a rather small circle of possibilities, which made the guessing even more engaging.

It did seem like Stacey’s love story part was rather hasty – an almost instalove vibe – and the ending, while satisfying, was still a bit bittersweet.

All in all, Woman With a Gun was an easy 4/5, and confirmed for me that I definitely need to continue working through Margolin’s books.

#11 for #20BooksofSummer!!!

(#10 will appear in this month’s minireviews at the end of July!)

Close Your Eyes // by Michael Robotham

//published 2016//

Well, this is (currently) the last of Joseph O’Laughlin books, and I’m quite, quite sorry to see them end.  Although I did check Robotham’s website – and he claims another book is coming sometime next year!  So I’ll have that to look forward to.

Wow, so I have really mixed feelings about this book.  Overall, the story was quite gripping and the pacing almost frenetic…  which, in retrospect, it almost feels like that was a bit of camouflage for the fact that this mystery didn’t seem quite as tight as most of the earlier ones – there were several times that it felt like Joe should have been more “on” a clue or lead; Vincent’s involvement also seemed rather cursory.   We were back with Joe’s first-person narration for this one, which I never like quite as well as the third person (despite the fact that I do quite like Joe).  There also felt like there was a LOT going on in Joe’s personal life, and while it was handled well on the whole, I still found myself wondering things like, “Would Joe’s daughter really go follow up on a clue instead of seeing her mum off to the hospital for surgery?” or, “Is it really more important to go talk to this random person than it is to spend some time with a family member having a major crisis?”

The biggest turn-off for this book was definitely the opening scene, a very bizarre and far-too-detailed scene involving sex and violence that left me feeling quite… dirtied.  Like now that is stuck in my head forever, and I don’t really want it to be there.  If I hadn’t already read all the other books in this series and known that that wasn’t really “what they were like,” I’m not sure I would have gotten over that opening scene.  It was just.  Ick.  And it felt completely superfluous, like it was just there for the shock factor.

But, setting all of that aside – I still could barely put down this book.  It was completely engaging, and I was QUITE impatient with my husband who kept interrupting me during the last few chapters when I just wanted to FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS.

And then I finally reached the end of the thriller part and took a deep breath, ready to read the last chapter and see all the little loose ends tied up – and there was a complete blindside in the last few pages.  Like I literally felt like someone had taken that heavy, hardcover book and cracked me over the head with it.  I was not expecting that last plot twist.  It felt so abrupt!  Plus, super weird, like I had to read a few paragraphs over to make sure that what I thought had happened had really happened…  it was just… strange.  A very strange way to end the book. Quite strange.  I didn’t like it.

Still, a 4/5 for a book that was quite intense and that I overall enjoyed (until the very end).  I’ll definitely be checking out more of Robotham’s books, and eagerly looking for another story with Joe & Company, hopefully next year.  This has been an excellent series and one I definitely recommend – as long as you feel like your heart can handle the intensity!

#7 for the #20BooksofSummer!

Watching You // by Michael Robotham

//published 2015//

After a few weeks of basically reading nothing but Dee Henderson, I was ready to jump into something new.  I’ve been really wanting to read the last two books in the Joseph O’Laughlin series, Watching You and Close Your Eyes, so I was pretty stoked to jump back into the series.  I’ve really come to like Joe and his family a lot, and his friend, Vincent Ruiz, is one of my favorite characters ever.

This book didn’t disappoint – I finished it within 24 hours of starting it, reading in huge chunks when I could, and a page or two at a time every time I walked through the room.  It was so intense, and I think it may be my favorite in the series (although Shatter is a close second).

One thing that I liked about this book is that Robotham switched to third person narration, which I always thinks works much better with present tense (if present tense we must).  For this book, it was a big part of what kept the tension ratcheting – the narration was always jumping to where the action was.,

In so many thrillers, it seems like a cop-out to have someone have serious mental illness issues, but it works in this series because Joe is a psychologist, so it’s only natural that he is going to have people who fit the ‘unreliable narrator’ category, and his patient Marnie definitely does just that.  Marnie’s husband has been missing for over a year, and she’s desperate for money.  The insurance company won’t release the life insurance until he is declared dead, and the government won’t declare him dead until he’s been missing for seven years.  (And apparently Marnie was never added to their bank account, so she can’t access that, either?  That bit seemed like a stretch to me, I  mean they’ve been married for several years and have two children, doesn’t it seem like they would have some kind of joint account??)

Marnie finally gets access to some of her husband’s stuff that he left at work when he disappeared.  In the box is a scrapbook of sorts – apparently, Daniel was working on a big surprise for Marnie, interviewing and videoing people who have known and loved her throughout her life, collecting memories and happy anecdotes.  Except as Marnie – and Joe – begin to work through the interviews, it turns out that not everyone remembers Marnie with pleasure.  In fact, several people seem to hate her, and Marnie has no idea why.

The pacing of this book is what makes it perfect.  As we slowly learn bits of Marnie’s past, each new dollop of information propels the reader on to the next bit – every answer only leads to more questions.  The slow realization that bad things happen to everyone who has done Marnie wrong, the questions about the unknown narrator from whom we get a few pages every couple of chapters, everything comes through at just the right time.  I was racing through this book, desperate to know the answers – all of which, by the way, were answered satisfactorily.

I wanted to give this book a 5/5 rating, but there were just a few scenes that held me back.  First off, this book definitely seemed to have more sex in it than others, and there is one bit in particular where an adult carries on a several-month assignation with a fifteen-year-old, which is downright creepy.  And that’s never presented as normal or healthy, but when the identity of the adult is revealed, it really seemed a bit out-of-character with everything else we’d learned about this person, so it was a little strange.  It sort of came across as though the whole thing was the fault of the teen, and the adult’s responsibility in the situation was sort of glossed over.  And the whole chapter talking about it went into a bit tooo much detail for my delicate sensibilities to enjoy.

So in the end, it’s a 4.5/5 read for me.  This book will definitely read better within the context of the series, but I think could also work as a standalone.  It’s definitely recommended, but only if you have some blocks of time on your hands, because you will not want to put this one down!

#6 for #20BooksofSummer!

Say You’re Sorry // by Michael Robotham

//published 2012//

In Robotham’s sixth outing for the Joseph O’Laughlin series, Joe himself is back as the main narrator (present tense, unfortunately, although Robotham does write it fairly well).  Some time has passed since the last book, but much of Joe’s life looks the same: still estranged from his wife (not divorced), but still working with her to raise their two daughters.  He has moved back to London, and the book begins with his daughter Charlie coming to stay with him for the weekend.

The other narrator of the story is Piper.  Piper was kidnapped three years before Joe’s story begins, and she and her friend Tash have been held in a small basement room ever since.  Her story is interspersed between Joe’s chapters, as we learn the back story of how Piper ended up where she is.  In Joe’s world, a girl is found dead and is identified as Tash.  In Piper’s story, we find out just how this all came to be.

Robotham balances these two narratives perfectly, giving just the right of information from one before switching to the other.  While Joe’s story takes up the majority of the book, Piper’s bits are critically important and emotionally devastating.  This isn’t a pretty story, as it involves kidnapping, rape, and even some torture, but Robotham handles all of this deftly.  We are told enough so that we know what we need to know, but he doesn’t smother the reader in excruciating details.

The tension really ratchets up in this book, and I found myself racing through the pages to find out whether or not Piper survives.  My only complaint was that while the clues were there to point to the true criminal, I also found it hard to believe that he had disguised himself so well.

There are always minor quibbles.  I’m still aggravated with Joe’s wife, who seems to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to keep Joe stringing along for years instead of just making a final decision as to whether or not she wants a divorce, especially when her reasons for not wanting him to stay with her seem flimsy at best.  I really miss the Julianne of the early books – I thought that she added an intriguing dimension to the story.  Ah well.  On the other hand, I’m really a bit in love with Vincent Ruiz, who reminds me quite a bit of Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle.  He is definitely my favorite character.

All in all, this has been a very enjoyable series so far.  While I’m definitely getting more out of them by reading them in order, they also seem like they would be perfectly readable as stand-alones.  I really appreciate Robotham’s ability to tackle some intense subjects without making his stories too bleak – although his willingness to kill off various people means that while I’m fairly certain that Joe himself will survive, I’m still rather worried about everyone else: the tension is real!

4/5 for this outing; recommended.