Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 1 of 3)

Lanny – Max Porter

Did you ever pick up a book in spite of yourself? I was never really all that drawn to read Lanny – despite the endless glowing recommendations from fellow readers and Keeper Upperers – until I heard Max Porter give a reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The organisers called Lanny “a tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama”, and even though I was skeptical, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up a copy.

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Lanny was first published in 2019, the follow-up to Porter’s cult success Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. As in his previous novel, myth and modern life come together through the eyes of children. The titular character, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans.

Lanny is a remarkably short novel, quick to power through and with lots of white space, but it seems to contain multitudes: magic, suspense, horror, joy, and wonder. Porter really pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, but it’s hardly one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down.

The story is told in three sections. The first switches between four narrators. We’ve got Dead Papa Toothwort, a spirit of some kind who watches and listens to a small English village. Then, there’s Lanny’s dad, an office worker in London. And there’s Lanny’s mum, a crime writer with ambivalent feelings about their suburban life (there’s no ambivalence about her love for her son, though). And, finally, there’s Pete, a local eccentric who was once a famous artist; Lanny’s Mum seeks him out, and he starts giving Lanny art lessons.

Through these grown-up eyes, Lanny emerges: idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His relationship with Pete, the artist, deepens quickly. Pete was actually my favourite narrator, and my favourite character overall.

“I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.”

Pete (Page 68)

Lanny reveals in conversation with Pete that the mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort is a local myth, a man made entirely of ivy. The rhyme goes: “Say your prayers and be good too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you,”. Lanny could have been told without Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective, but it adds a layer to our understanding of what Porter is trying to do with the story. Lanny isn’t just about one mildly interesting kid; it’s about England, and small town politics, and perspective.

Toothwort allows the reader to “ride the smells” of the town (including Jenny’s lasagne, and Derek’s hot-pot-for-one – yes, your mouth may water a little). The snatches of conversation he draws from the town are formatted differently to the rest of the narrative, curling across the pages in at-first-glance nonsensical italics. The topics are just what you’d expect from small-town conversation: dog walks, cancer scares, mini-breaks, local gossip… And Toothwort’s commentary on it all serves to remind us just how small, and simultaneously how large, our lives are.

The second section is told in snippets of internal dialogue. (Spoilers ahoy!) Lanny goes missing, and the whole town (mostly) joins in the search for him (eventually). Many of the insights come from Lanny’s distraught mother; Porter will really do a number on you, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, with the way he lays out her terror and guilt. Then there’s Lanny’s father, who doesn’t feel as close to the child, and the sneaky little voice in his head who wonders if they’re not all better off with the kid gone.

Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective interjects occasionally, but he takes a back-seat to Pete, who is accused of abducting and/or assaulting the child. The village shows its true colours in the witch hunt; Pete is beaten (and my heart broke for him more than it did for Lanny, if I’m honest), but he maintains his innocence and his determination to help Lanny’s parents find the boy. He’s made a scapegoat, purely for the fact that he chose to colour outside the lines when he chose how he wanted to live his life, but he holds his head up high and fuck the lot of them (I told you he was my favourite!).

The third section gets a little a lot weird. The best way I could describe it is a series of feverish dream-like explanations of what has happened to Lanny, and what his parents and Pete make of it. I suppose, given that I’m already elbow-deep in spoilers, I’m obligated to tell you that Lanny is found safe and (relatively) well, having been fed and watered by Dead Papa Toothwort on his adventure… but beyond that, I’m really not sure how to describe the ending to you. You’ll just have to read Lanny for yourself.

Lanny is a short book, as I said, but it’s “about” so many things. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. For me, it was about an innocent man harangued and almost hanged by a small town, but maybe you’ll find in it a book about nature, a book about a child’s sense of wonder, a book about parental obligation and fear, a book about a town ghost, a morality tale, an environmental allegory, a hybrid fairytale, a freewheeling fantasy. I’m not sure I could recommend Lanny blindly, because it’s so weird, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to others who have read it (that’s a hint to tell me what you think in the comments, by the way!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lanny:

  • “Probably didn’t like the book” – Amazon Customer
  • “Just because you can change the orientation of your font doesn’t mean you’re doing something creative or cutting edge. Mush like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the author is so obsessed with how amazing and creative they are, they fail to tell a fundamentally sound story. Inside cover says $24 for a book that can’t break 20,000 words. There seems to be a trend in the vein of Pirate Utopia where an established author shovels overpriced garbage and tricks loyal readers into buying their hot trash.” – LJ
  • “Having trampled “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Mr. Porter now turns his oh-so-clever combination of full-on thesaurus assault, “whimsy,” and “never use seven words when forty-nine words would do just as well” on the Green Man legend. Yeah… no, Max. No.” – L. Chaney
  • “Very odd book. Doesn’t take long to read would be its only plus.” – Miss Sara Claire Mason

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Well, Keeper Upperers, last year I asked Santa for a big stack of books – and boy, did he deliver! Sadie by Courtney Summers came via my wonderful and dear friend Cathal, right into my hot little hands. This one has been near the top of my wishlist for ages, so I couldn’t bring myself to wait another minute before tearing in to it.

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Sadie is Courtney Summer’s break-out novel. She’s written several other books prior, but this is the one that catapulted her to international attention and #bookstagram fame. What brought it to my attention was the killer premise: a modern twist on a murder mystery, partly styled as a podcast transcript.

The story begins with the discovery of a body, that of 13-year-old Mattie Southern, in a small run-down town in the middle of nowhere. She is survived by her 19-year-old sister, Sadie. Right off the bat, I liked the way that Summers was thumbing her nose at the tropes by naming her book after the living protagonist. When was the last time you read a crime novel with a titular girl who wasn’t dead?

That’s your first hint that Sadie is cleverer than it might first appear. Summers also lampoons the true-crime trend of middle-class butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths white blonde victims. Mattie and Sadie are from the wrong side of the tracks, their fathers are long gone, and their mother decided she preferred drugs to home-cooked dinners. Sadie and Mattie have had to forge their own way, living in a trailer with only their landlady for support.

West McCray – a radio journalist – overhears the tragic news of Mattie’s death while he’s working on another story nearby. At first, he doesn’t think much of it (another dead girl? that’s sad, but it’s hardly a story). Then, he hears from their landlady: Sadie has gone missing, just months after Mattie’s death. That’s the impetus for his podcast investigation, what hooks him (and us, the readers): what happened to the girls?

So, one side of the story is told by West, as he investigates – through interviews and sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong – and the other side is told by Sadie herself. It’s a really interesting way of piecing the story together: each protagonist knows things the other doesn’t, and even without the high-stakes plot, you’ll find yourself desperate to find out what happens when their stories catch up to one another and intersect.

Summers also nails the podcast transcript, I must say. It’s very clearly modelled off cultural staples like Serial and This American Life. As I read, I couldn’t help but “hear” most of it in the soothing tones of Ira Glass. It got a little trite towards the end, maybe a little “neat”, but overall it holds up. I read in another review that apparently there are actual recorded episodes out there, which I’m curious to track down.

I think it’s also really powerful that Sadie is given her own voice, the opportunity to tell the reader her own story. Had the whole lot been narrated by West and the people he interviews, a lot of the complexity and intimacy would have been lost. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed Mattie, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with us.

Being a crime novel, styled as a true crime podcast, there’s obviously some pretty gruesome stuff (if you’re not a true crime junkie, it’s probably worse than you’d imagine). So, here’s a content warning for violence (duh) and child abuse. Though Courtney Summers’ books are classed as Young Adult, I really feel that Sadie could have been published and marketed as adult crime fiction without raising an eyebrow.

The ending isn’t exactly happy, though it does provide enough resolution that the story feels finished. I knocked it over in a single afternoon. I’d say it’s the perfect book for fans of Veronica Mars.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sadie:

  • “It was pretty ok!” – Lauren A Woods
  • “Wtf” – User

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

This year (aside from everything else) marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first mystery novel. She went on to become the Queen of Crime, selling over a billion books in English, and another billion in translation. The lady’s got the chops, if popular opinion is anything to go by. So, for my first foray into her body of work, I chose the best-of-the-best: And Then There Were None, which, according to the blurb on this edition, is the world’s “best-selling mystery” with over 100 million copies sold.

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(Christie herself also declared it to be the “most difficult” book she ever wrote, by the way.)

Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion. All were brought there under similar false pretenses: an invitation from an old friend, a job offer from an agency, and so forth. On the first evening, while they’re all finishing up dinner, a recorded voice piped into the room by gramophone accuses them all of having a guilty secret. Specifically, each one of them has committed (or contributed to) a murder. By the time they’ve stopped reeling from the announcement, one of the guests is dead.

Obviously, they all decide to get while the getting’s good – who wants to hang around on an island with a corpse, especially when all the living souls there with you know your darkest secret? The thing is, a terrible storm blows up, preventing any boats from traveling to or from the mainland. There’s another death, then another, then another… none of them accidental. Who is the killer? Will anyone survive?

As far as mystery novels go, And Then There Were None demonstrably has a (pardon the pun) killer premise. It’s a locked-room mystery, with a ticking clock.

Alas, I’m going to have to pull us away from the intrigue for a second to address the very obvious elephant in the room. Agatha Christie was… well, a racist, homophobic, shit-storm of a person. If she’d been alive today and had a Twitter account, she would have been publicly flayed for her outrageously prejudiced depictions of her characters that weren’t white and straight. And Then There Were None was originally published as Ten Little N*****s (no, the original title was not censored) in the U.K., and as Ten Little Indians in the U.S. Obviously, those titles are problematic in the extreme.

Both versions were drawn from alternate versions of a nursery rhyme, which (in turn) forms a central part of the novel’s premise (more on that in a minute). Even back at the time of publication, in 1939, the n-word was a bit too contentious for an American audience (thus, the name change). Various editions continued to use the racial slurs, on both sides of the pond, until 1985, when decency finally won out and all references to n*****s and Indians were replaced by “soldiers”. Thus, the nursery rhyme in question is “Ten Soldier Boys”, and the island on which the story takes place is “Soldier Island”.

Still, traces of Christie’s personal prejudices remain. In the first chapter, there’s some truly alarming anti-Semitic remarks. She uses the word “queer” at least fifty times – whether as a slur or a contextually appropriate equivalent of “strange”, it’s difficult to tell, but it’s still discomfiting. Really, it’s a wonder that she even counted the butler and his wife as “people”. As such, I feel obliged to warn all readers up front: if you’re particularly sensitive to these kinds of insensitivity, And Then There Were None (and, in fact, Christie’s entire back-catalogue) is not for you.

But, assuming you can stomach it, let’s get back to the story: in each guest’s room is a framed copy of the Ten Soldier Boys poem. The deaths of the guests follow the pattern of the rhyme: the first chokes to death at dinner, the second “overslept” (i.e., never woke up), and so on. Luckily, this edition includes the poem as an epigraph, because I couldn’t help flicking back to it after each murder to see how it related to the original poem and to try and guess how the next murder might take place. Sure, the whole thing is a bit far-fetched… but it was fun!

And Then There Were None was pretty much what I’d expected, given its age and reputation. It was quaint, and there were some unintentionally hilarious moments (such as the woman who marvels at “how big the sea was!”, and the frequency with which brandy is offered as a cure for fainting), but it also managed to be compelling and clever.

“When you read what happens after that you will not believe it, but you will keep on reading, and as one incredible event is followed by another even more incredible you will still keep on reading. The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written, and if any other writer has ever surpassed it for sheer puzzlement the name escapes our memory. We are referrinng, of course, to mysteries that have logical explanations, as this one has. It is a tall story, to be sure, but it could have happened.”

Isaac AnDerson, 25 February 1940, The New York Times Book Review

Everything is wrapped up very neatly in the end (no ambiguous fade-to-black endings for the Queen of Crime, no siree!). The epilogue appears in two parts: first, a confused conversation between two Scotland Yard officers attempting to reconstruct the events that took place on Soldier Island; then, a trawler captain finds a message in a bottle, a written confession from the murderer. Normally, I’d be happy to go ahead and spoil the ending (the story is over eighty years old, after all), but seeing as it managed to keep me guessing right up until then, game respects game and all that.

And Then There Were None is the most-adapted Agatha Christie book. In fact, a few of the adaptations she even wrote and produced herself. She famously changed the ending for theater audiences when she wrote the 1943 stage-play, the original version being a bit “too bleak”. Many subsequent adaptations have also used that alternative ending. I like the original, though, and I can’t imagine that a more up-beat version could be any better. All told, And Then There Were None is an (almost) thoroughly enjoyable classic crime novel, a quick and satisfying read (if you can set aside the problematic elements).

My favourite Amazon reviews of And Then There Were None:

  • “Good read!! The pages are smooth! I felt it.” – Mushfiq Ayon
  • “Looking forward to more books by her. Completely enjoyed this….” – Craig S. Pederson
  • “I ordered the book for my sister-in-law who has lost her sight. She also lost the ability to borrow listening tapes from the state during the lockdown. The book was a disappointment as the reader has a heavy accent making it difficult to understand. This isn’t expected since British programs such as the “Crown” and “Keeping up Appearances” are produced without English accents. “ – Marlene Gantt
  • “As you would expect from the Grand Dame. I am more than a bit confused over the epilogue, but I can live with that. Unlike the 10 Little Indians. “ – Mike

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

It is nothing short of miraculous that I’ve managed to go so long – over eight years, including the release of a wildly successful film adaptation – without reading Gone Girl. It’s doubly miraculous, surely, that I managed to avoid spoilers that whole time, too. But the jig is up, and it’s time to buckle down! Gone Girl is a crime thriller/mystery novel by American writer, Gillian Flynn. It came on the crest of the wave of “psychological thrillers”. In fact, given how many copies it sold (over two million in the first year alone), how long it spent on the best-seller lists, the extent to which it has permeated the popular consciousness, we might say that Gone Girl was the typhoon that caused the wave to begin with.

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Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. There’s a sign of a struggle in the living room, but no other real clues as to where she’s gone. The police suspect Nick was involved somehow in her disappearance, but he swears he had nothing to do with it. That’s how Gone Girl begins.

Flynn deftly weaves in their back-story, in the form of Amy’s diary entries. Nick and Amy had a fairy tale meet-cute and courtship. They married after dating for two years, merging seamlessly into one another. But when the global financial crisis hit, they both lost their jobs (Nick as a pop-culture writer for a magazine, Amy as a personality-quiz creator).

This change in circumstance all but forced them to leave cosmopolitan New York, moving to Nick’s hometown in backwater Mississippi. There, he opened a bar with his twin sister (borrowing the last of Amy’s family money to do so), and focused on caring for his terminally ill mother and demented father. Meanwhile, Amy… did nothing much, really, until she disappeared.

Flynn has borrowed from a few different sources to put this plot together. She used her own experience of being laid off from her job as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. She has also said that she was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Laci Peterson in 2002. It’s a strange mix, but damn, it’s delicious.

Nick and Amy’s perspectives alternate throughout the novel. They describe their marriage in very different ways, each (obviously) more sympathetic to their own cause and critical of the other. Both narrators feel unsteady, unreliable, but it’s not exactly clear why… at first. Every character in Gone Girl – from the married couple to the childhood friends to the greasy lawyer – exists in a murky grey area. No one is entirely likeable or unlikeable, trustworthy or untrustworthy, hero or villain.

The “big twist” comes almost exactly half-way through. Amy isn’t who she’s been telling us she is in her diary entries. At first, the switch felt a bit jarring, too extreme to be believable. But I went with it, and stopped using “believability” as a criterion by which I gauged my enjoyment of the story. I quickly found it added a whole new dimension to an already-complex plot. Plus, it was a great subversion of the kind of “suspense” we expect from these kinds of stories. The reader is forced to change gears, from wondering whether Nick Dunne was actually involved in his wife’s disappearance and waiting for the “big twist”, to wondering where on earth the story could possibly go after the truth is revealed.

I debated long and hard whether to discuss the details of the “big twist” here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, they’ve already been discussed and debated elsewhere at length – even some publicity materials have at least alluded to them. Plus, I don’t really believe in “spoilers” (if you don’t want to know what happens in a book, what the heck are you doing here?). But in the end, I had to concede: I won’t reveal all, just on the off chance that there’s some other Keeper Upperer out there who hasn’t read Gone Girl yet and would like to someday. The reading experience will definitely be better, as it is with all thrillers, if you don’t see what’s coming.

(What I will say, for those who already know, is that I really liked the ending. That might be a controversial position, as I’ve seen other reviewers bemoan it for being “unrealistic”, but I thought it was very fitting. I really appreciated that Flynn avoided the neat-bow-around-everything approach of so many other contemporary crime thriller writers. So, there.)

I was pleasantly – if weirdly – surprised by Gone Girl. I wasn’t going to stay-up-all-night to finish it, the way the schlocky blurbs promised I would, but I was always curious to see what happened next. I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the characters, and the way that Flynn weaved intriguing, tantalising hints into the story. In the Battle Of The Girls (Gone Girl versus The Girl On The Train), this one definitely comes out on top.

The film adaptation was released in 2014, written by Flynn herself and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I’m actually planning to watch it – a very rare outcome, but one that should be a testament to how much I enjoyed Gone Girl. I’m also keen to read Flynn’s other books (Sharp Objects, in particular, comes highly recommended), though I worry that they couldn’t possibly “live up” now that my expectations have been elevated. But even if they don’t, at least Flynn will already have a win on her record.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gone Girl:

  • “Too many sexual remarks that were not necessary” – Tonga
  • “This is a great book, the shipping was fast, but the book was somewhat dirty. I had to wipe off dust.” – Esmerelda
  • “I would rather read an offensively revisionist middle school history textbook from a religious private school in a red state cover to cover once a week for the rest of my life then have to read this again. So you hate yourself go ahead and give somebody money for it and insult yourself by reading it. Trash.” – DangItBobby
  • “I didn’t like what was revealed in the middle of the.book because it should have been revealed near the end of the book. I went to Wikipedia to read a review and I shouldn’t have. The idiot who did the review disclosed the whole story of what happened in the second part of the book. When I read a mystery I want the main event to be revealed at the end of the book not in the middle” – Bruce
  • “Wife loved it.” – Jeremiah

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

So, I’m not particularly familiar with Raymond Chandler, but for crime fiction fans he’s basically God. Anthony Burgess once said: “Chandler is an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes“. That’s some mighty comparison! The Big Sleep is Chandler’s best-known novel, published in 1939, and it was the first to feature that immortal Sherlockian detective.

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Everyone comes to The Big Sleep for Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles, and he was certainly an evocative place writer, but I personally loved his characterisations most of all. I got a lot of smirks out of descriptions like: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money” = brilliant! That said, Chandler was far from perfect when it came to plotting. The Big Sleep is complex, criss-crossing, and full of holes, like a hand-knitted jumper from a kindly arthritic grandma. So, bear with me as I try to explain…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is having a grand old life, being vaguely sexist and drinking a lot of hard liquor, when he gets a call from wealthy patriarch General Sternwood. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “deal with” a recent blackmail attempt on his daughter, Carmen. And Marlowe won’t have to work too hard, because they’ve already fingered the culprit: bookseller Arthur Geiger, whose bookselling operation is actually a front for his illegal pornography trade.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of Sternwood’s son-in-law, husband of his other daughter Vivian: Rusty Regan has disappeared off the face of the earth. Vivian puts the heavies on Marlowe herself, trying to figure out whether he’s on that case, too. But mostly, it’s the blackmailing thing. Sternwood tells Marlowe to deal with that as a priority.

So, off Marlowe trots to investigate this “bookseller” Geiger, starting with a good old-fashioned stakeout at his house. He sees Carmen walk in, but doesn’t follow her, figuring he’ll wait and see what happens… and then he hears gunshots, and screaming. He heads inside and finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged and naked, both sprawled out in front of an empty camera.

First thing’s first: he gets Carmen into a jacket and home safe. But, upon returning, he finds Geiger’s body has disappeared. Uh oh.



The next day, the coppers come around and tell Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ car was driven off a cliff with the chauffeur still inside (but he was whacked around the head before the car hit the water, so at least he didn’t suffer). They also grill Marlowe about whether he’s chasing after Regan. Seriously, every other minute someone’s pestering Marlowe about this missing Regan bloke – I can’t think of a single character that doesn’t ask him about it at some point.

Anyway, still on the blackmailing case, Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s bookstore and sees his porn stash being moved to the home of one Joe Brody. Before he can figure out what to do about that, Vivian hits him up, telling him Carmen is still being blackmailed, but now with nude photos from the night before. She also tells him, just casually, that she likes gambling at a casino belonging to Eddie Mars, whose wife (she suspects) ran off with Regan.

To his credit, Marlowe doesn’t take the bait straight away. He heads back to Geiger’s house first, and finds Carmen trying to break in. They search for the nudes together, with no luck, and she plays dumb about what happened the night before. Then Eddie Mars, the casino owner, coincidentally shows up. He says he’s Geiger’s landlord and he’s looking for him. He and Marlowe have a pissing contest.



Are you lost and confused yet? I hope not, because we’re not even halfway through! With all the crossing and double-crossing, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to whom. Plus, I’m not sure I quite buy how often Marlowe “just happened” to witness a murder, or arrive on the scene while the body’s still warm…

Next, Marlowe heads over to Joe Brody’s, where they’re stashing the porn. He works out Brody is in cahoots with Geiger’s clerk, Agnes. He tells them both the jig is up: he knows about the porn, he knows about the blackmail… but before he can finish them, Carmen breaks in and tries to shoot them both. Marlowe gets the gun off her, thank goodness (a strumpet with a temper and a firearm is not a good combination), and he tells her to head out, he’s got this.

Geiger was, in fact, the one initially blackmailing Carmen. The (now dead) chauffeur, Owen Taylor, didn’t like it much, because he had the hots for her. He snuck in and killed Geiger, and took the nudes out of the camera for safekeeping. Brody had also been staking out the house (how did he and Marlowe not run into each other?), and he followed Owen when he left. He knocked the driver out, stole the nudes, then decided to do a little blackmailing of his own.

Then – bam! Geiger’s lover shows up, and shoots Brody dead. He thought Brody was the one who killed Geiger, and wanted to get some revenge. Also, he admits, he was the one who hid Geiger’s body – he wanted to get all of his stuff out of the house before anyone figured out they were more than friends (this was the ’30s, after all).

So, case solved! Yay! All the blackmailers are dead, happy days. But Regan’s disappearance is still troubling Marlowe – probably because everyone around him won’t shut up about it. The cops aren’t that concerned though; they figure he just ran off with Mrs Mars, like Vivian said.

Now, we meet Henry Jones (yes, Chandler is still introducing new characters, and they all have super-generic names – ack!). He offers to sell Marlowe the location of Mrs Mars, but he doesn’t get the chance, because Eddie has him killed. The Big Sleep‘s death toll is now up to four. Luckily, Marlowe manages to squeeze the information out of Agnes instead. He finds Mrs Mars (killing Eddie’s henchman in the process – that’s five!), only for her to tell him that she hasn’t seen Regan in months. Dead end, after all that!

With hat in hand, Marlowe goes to see his client. But Sternwood ups the stakes, offering him $1,000 for Regan’s whereabouts. Marlowe quickly decides that this isn’t the moment to give up. On his way out the door, he returns Carmen’s gun to her, and she asks him to take her down the back paddock and teach her how to shoot. Fair enough, he thinks, but as soon as they get out there she decides to use him as the target.



But Marlowe, being a clever bugger, has loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen immediately falls into a (very convenient) seizure, which saves her from having to explain herself. He carries her up to the house, and he and Vivian finally piece it all together. A while back, Carmen came on to Regan and he rejected her, so she killed him (as she just tried to do with Marlowe). Eddie Mars, who had been an investor in Geiger’s little porno enterprise, had helped Vivian cover it up. He disposed of the body, and invented a cock-and-bull story about his wife running off with the dead guy. Vivian claims she did it all to keep her father from finding out his other daughter was a psychopath, and she promises to get Carmen locked up in a nice cozy mental institution.

So, to celebrate a job well done, Marlowe heads down the pub. He downs a few scotches, muses briefly on death, and tells the bartender he has the hots for Mrs Mars but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. The title, The Big Sleep, is Marlowe’s euphemism for death that he uses in those final pages.

The Big Sleep, like most of Marlowe’s novels, was written by what he called “cannibalising” his short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published and rework them into a coherent novel. For The Big Sleep, he mashed together his short stories Killer In The Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). Although the stories were independent, and shared no characters, they ran along similar lines – an old powerful bloke whose daughter is stressing him out, basically.



As might be expected, all of this cannibalising sometimes produced a plot with a few loose ends. The famously unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur, Owen? I mean, logic would suggest that it must have been Brody, but Chandler never confirmed it – in fact, when the question was put to him, he said he had no idea. To him, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterisation (and it shows). An ending that answered every question mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters, so bear that in mind when you pick this one up.

The Big Sleep is quite similar to one of my other recent reads, The Maltese Falcon, in a lot of ways, but I think I preferred Hammett’s style. If you’re a dedicated crime/detective mystery reader, though, The Big Sleep would be a good one for you – you’ll be well practiced at following the twists and turns, and it’s clearly a classic of the genre.

If you’re not sure, you can try before you buy. There have been a bunch of different adaptations into almost every format – most famously a 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart (naturally). I’m not sure I’ll read The Big Sleep again, but I’d be keen to give the movie a go – it reads like it would translate really well into film.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Big Sleep:

  • “Lime gimlets. What more do I need to say.” – AH Jones
  • “I read a great deal and have read nothing better. Frequently not as well crafted. Correct as to the time period. Yes I’m that old.” – cain paul the less than apostle
  • “a classic that doesnt dissapoint. named my cat marlowe.” – ssfn
  • “Book showed up good. Had pages and ever thing.” – Ken Johnson
  • “chandler like so many authors puts too many non essentials in his plots make them a little too much boring” – Astan papemazon Customer
  • “Descriptive wording. Love that.” – Lynne B.
  • “A good reader. Turnpager.” – Maycoon


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