The Big Farewell/My Lovely Sleep

The Big Sleep was easy enough to finish, but Farewell, My Lovely took a bit of a last-minute binge. Part of the reason for this is that Farewell, My Lovely has a chapter ending with the case seemingly wrapped up (at least as far as Marlowe’s involvement in it), so you wonder why he would bother investigating further. Sure, there are indications (later) that he’s unhappy with the resolution, but a) that’s of little value if the reader doesn’t agree*, and b) it’s after the point where the reader might have decided to put the book down. Ending every chapter with a cliffhanger may be cheap (*cough*DanBrown*cough*), but it keeps the reader turning pages.

To be fair, The Big Sleep has a similar seemingly-wrapped-up moment, but it’s around three-quarters of the way through the book, meaning I, at least, found it easy to keep going, even though I paused to wonder what was left to resolve. I suspect it also helped that I’d seen the Humphrey Bogart movie version, which made it simpler to pick up on who some of the characters were, without destroying the suspense (as the movie makes several changes to the story).

Once over that stumbling block, however, I enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely almost as much. I can see why they’re considered classics of the genre, complete with monologuing narrator, 30s/40s slang, femmes fatale, expressive similes, and a world-weary detective just trying to get by with integrity in a corrupt world. There’s a definite feeling of admiration in seeing the seemingly-disparate threads of a complicated adventure come together and be neatly tied up.

There was one thing that really bugged me, though, related to the period, and particularly so in Farewell, My Lovely given the inciting incident: casual racism**. It’s another reminder that there’s been some fairly significant shifts in certain cultural attitudes within the last 50 years. It does, however, make me think of the stereotype of the racist elderly relative (heck, Prince Philip could be the poster … er … child), and realise that (in a lot of cases) they’re just saying things that were commonplace when they were growing up, probably without malice, and almost definitely without being aware that such things are making younger people cringe.

We all relate to the world through the frame of our own experiences—what we consider “normal”. I vaguely wonder what things our generation will still be saying in a few decades that will appal our children/grandchildren. Because whatever it is, it’s worth considering whether it should be appalling us now.

* This actually ties in with something I’ve been pondering recently about video-game stories. There’s probably a post in it once I manage to reify my more nebulous thoughts, but that will be over on Semi-coherent Musings.

** There’s also a definite homophobia (though I feel that’s the wrong word, because it’s not a fear but a contempt), but oddly I didn’t notice much sexism. There’s the implicit stuff (types of job, etc), but women in the stories seem to have as much agency as men. Maybe it’s just the nature of the cases, that such issues aren’t relevant—I doubt the homophobia would have come up if there weren’t homosexuals involved in the story.

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Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Other


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I give up, what’s the answer?

The next book I’ve been (labouring) reading is Riddle of the Sands, recommended as a classic spy/thriller. I thought I would like it. I wanted to like it. But I just didn’t.

The context is two young Englishmen on holiday (circa 1900), sailing around the coast of Germany in a small yacht. After another sailor tries to get them wrecked, they become suspicious that the German navy is up to something in the sand flats around the East Frisian islands, and attempt to investigate.

Unfortunately, I’m a land-lubber to the core, and a lot of the book is spent describing their nautical explorations around the area. It has some interesting and/or amusing moments, but there’s also a lot of jargon that went over my head (jibing, heeling, kedging, …).

I persevered, partly encouraged by comments from the narrator that things were about to escalate (e.g. “The decisive incidents of our cruise were now fast approaching.”). But they never did. There was one (brief) interesting moment regarding a thief attempting to sneak on board (while they’re beached at low tide), but overall it felt like a cheap writer’s trick to keep the reader turning pages (“It’s about to get good, honest!”). The one bit that could have been dramatic and exciting—struggling to reach a safe harbour in a sudden storm—is introduced by the claim that “I think I cannot do better than give extracts from my diary”*, which proceed to relate the incident in (ironically) very dry terms.

It reinforces the idea that any scene in a story should have a purpose; either advancing the plot, or affecting the characters (whether individually, or the relationships between them). At the very least, the events happening should be of interest. Well, as I said, I’m no sailor, so the events weren’t engrossing**. Owing to the genre, the characters don’t majorly change, so there’s not much going on there. And the plot moves about as slowly as their small yacht through the shallow channels in the sandbanks.

It doesn’t help that the patriotic, racist, colonialist, British empire feeling frequently hangs so thickly you can almost hear the tinny gramophone playing “Land of Hope and Glory” in the background. The very first sentence made me cringe, and I reproduce it here in all it’s backward splendour:

I HAVE read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude—save for a few black faces—have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism.

Oy. I’m glad we’ve moved on. That said, this is all my opinion/reaction, and someone else may find it “un-put-down-able”.

I was relieved when, moving on to The Big Sleep (shortly to be followed by Farewell, My Lovely), that I was immediately loving the style and tone. It should be a lot more fun to read. Watch this space…

* I was paraphrasing as I could not remember the exact quote, but then realised, given its vintage, the book was probably on Project Gutenberg.

** Not boring, per se, just not enough to keep me invested.

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Posted by on September 1, 2015 in Other, Review


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Better than Marrows

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

One of Agatha Christie’s earlier works, yet consistently rated one of her best, and I can see why. Everything fits together neatly, as usual, giving the reader the standard “I never would have worked all that out, but now I can see it’s the only possible explanation” feeling upon completion; the complications of the villain attempting to cover their tracks, but also numerous other characters having secrets to hide makes for a confusing time for all concerned.

Except Poirot (temporarily unretired from his quiet life growing marrows), of course; maddening as ever, he smugly hints at details only he knows the significance of. The most annoying thing is, he’s right.

That said, I did guess (and I use the term intentionally) the identity of the murderer. But it was purely through having ruled out most everyone else, and a vague feeling that they weren’t being entirely truthful rather than any understanding of how it all played out. I was as surprised as anyone else by the details.

I do remember feeling at some points, however, that whodunnits can tend to age badly. Technologically, socially, culturally, the setting comes across as quite alien. Not so strange as to be unrelateable—humans will be humans, then and now—but strange enough that you either don’t realise the meaning behind certain details, or don’t notice them at all.


I realise it’s a little silly to claim spoilers for a book that was published nearly 90 years ago, but the puzzle and the reveal is the whole raison d’être of the whodunnit genre.

What I like about the book is the masterful use of the “unreliable narrator”. It has the required “last person you would expect” that any good whodunnit should, along with “the one person with an unquestioned alibi”. Any genre-savvy detective should realise that anyone who doesn’t have an alibi is obviously innocent, and arrest the person who has arranged matters to make it obvious they couldn’t possibly be the murderer. 🙂

As I said, I guessed Dr. Sheppard was probably the culprit, having decided the phone call was to provide him with an alibi (establishing him as being at home at whatever-time-it-was). I had no clue it was to ensure he was first on the scene and could “clean up”. I also hadn’t the foggiest about the boots, the ring, the quill, the scrap, the chair, or the footprints, but was impressed that it all made sense in the end.


Posted by on August 17, 2015 in Other, Review


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