An Evening In: The Big Sleep

Gritty streets, fog rolling off the Pacific, rain over orange trees. It’s LA some time after Prohibition, and Philip Marlowe’s got a job to do. A job for a couple of half-crazy dames and an old man with a lot of money and a little pride.

Sooner or later, we all sleep the big sleep.

Raymond Chandler wrote his classic hits of pulp fiction in the 1930s having lost his job during the Great Depression, and people have lapped them up ever since. It’s a dangerous world of deceitful women and hard-faced men (the two kinds of people Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t understand), guns, shadowy figures in battered coats with their collars turned up, roulette being played in dilapidated old mansions and pornographic libraries being run from Main Street. Marlowe is a kind of a good man – the kind who can shoot straight.

It’s not just the gang-land plots and the seedy under-belly setting that sets Chandler’s work apart from the general flotsam of pulp fiction, however. He has a gift for a neat phrase – women with ‘enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmen’s lunch’, ‘a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in’, the old man ‘using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings’ – and sketches Marlowe’s straight talking, hard drinking ways in short, sharp sentences that don’t waste words in plots that are fairly convoluted and draw in plenty of characters who all get their face time with our hero.

The Big Sleep is such an immersive book, the setting, the language, the characters all belong together so neatly, that you do have to be in the right frame of mind for it. Best to read it, perhaps, in a dim room while it’s raining outside and huddled figures are waiting under street lights, with something amber at your elbow.

Marlowe drinks a lot of Scotch and soda in the book, and if you want to go along with him Laphroaig is always a safe bet. If, on the other hand, Scotch isn’t your thing perhaps try pairing The Big Sleep with one of the heavier white wines, something full-bodied enough that you know you’re drinking. Australian or Californian Chardonnays have the reputation of being heavier and fruitier than their European counterparts, while Chardonnay from the Montrachet region should be both dry and heavy. As anyone who keeps an eye out for cheap bottles knows, buying Chardonnay can turn into the Russian roulette of wine drinking, but these are solid starting points to try and find one you enjoy! Since dirty Hollywood is such a star of The Big Sleep, my recommendation is to show some loyalty and go for a Californian bottle.

Book: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Pair With: Laphroaig and soda, or a Californian Chardonnay


An Evening In: Heyer Highlights

In the midst of some cursedly interesting times and painfully dull weather here in the UK I have been considering my next review and decided to go for a list I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

Georgette Heyer published over fifty books, and thirty-two of those were romances. She is the First Lady of Regency romance, taught me almost everything I know about Georgian London, and has a vaguely satirical, elegant writing tone that makes the stories romantic and exciting without descending into melodrama or the sort of over the top I’d-die-for-you nonsense that, for example, Twilight embraced.

I love Georgette Heyer for the detail of the historical setting, for the wealth of character and the fabulous lives of the Upper Ten Thousand, because the heroines don’t weep too often and the men don’t make unrealistic declarations of love every few minutes, and because when there are smugglers and kidnappings and elopements there is also nearly always a haughty lord watching with one eyebrow raised and finding it all very silly. Georgette Heyer often commented that her romances were not good books (she was more proud of her crime novels), but I entirely disagree, and think these internal auditors of the ridiculous are one of the reasons I can forgive her almost anything. All of her romances are funny, expertly plotted and neatly handled. It is very hard for me to pick a favourite; so instead, here are my Heyer highlights for any mood.

For a proper Romantic hero – Devil’s Cub.

The Marquis of Vidal is as wild and unruly as his sire, once named Satanas. The Satanas of These Old Shades has, however, retired his cloven hooves and the young Marquis has stepped into them, bent on a rakes progress of womanising, gambling, fighting and murder. From the glittering top of London society, Vidal’s latest exploit sends him by paternal instruction to Paris, taking with him not the sweet and vulgar Sophia Challoner, but a very different prospect in her sister Mary.

Featuring Rupert and Leonie in France, Julianna Marling and her sensitive swain Mr Cummin, Parisian balls, pistols and an awful lot of wine, this is one of the more dramatic of Heyer’s romances. Mary is the practical, vaguely ironical heroine expertly taking the wind out of Vidal’s swashbuckling sails.

Best moment: Rupert and his suspicious attitude to Dijon, or an ill Vidal describing gruel as ‘repulsive pap’ and threatening to throw it.

For a strong and excellent heroine – The Grand Sophy

The quiet London residence of the Rivenhall family is thrown into uproar by the arrival of their cousin, Miss Sophia Stanton-Lacy, left in the care of her aunt while her diplomat father travels to Brazil. This damsel, known to military men as the Grand Sophy from a life spent campaigning in war-torn Europe, wakes up a family that has become depressed and dull, burdened by the debts of their gambling, loose fish of a father. Sophy’s eldest cousin, the staid, long-suffering Charles, holds the purse strings and considerable control over the lives of his siblings. Cecilia Rivenhall is determined to marry a poet, Hubert Rivenhall is in the hands of a dangerous moneylender, and Charles himself is in quite the worst pickle of all with his engagement to the sanctimonious Miss Eugenia Wraxton. Sophy needs her finest schemes and a steady hand to bring this household to a happy conclusion.

Special mention to: the monkey, the Marquessa, and the absurd Augustus Fawnhope.

For standout supporting cast and comedy – Friday’s Child

When young buck Viscount Sheringham is unexpectedly married to little Hero Wantage, all of London believes he has done it in a fit of pique, rejected by childhood friend and reigning London Beauty, Isabella Milborne. All of London, and Hero. Naive and trusting, Hero is merely grateful to be allowed to be Sherry’s wife, but is not up to snuff in the busy, bright world of London society. Sherry’s easy-going nature and blind optimism that he needn’t change his way of life just because he is no longer single are  swiftly tested by his new wife’s progress. With his excellent cronies Gil, Ferdy and George and the execrable Lord Montagu as the villain, this is one of Heyer’s most joyous, most complete and most satisfactory novels.

Best moment: Any scene featuring the four men and Kitten is heart-warming, ridiculous and very funny. I’m particularly fond of Ferdy, who is not pin-sharp but is nonetheless a veritable Pink of the ton.

For costumes – Arabella

Arabella Tallant is the eldest and most beautiful daughter of a Yorkshire vicar, sent to London to come out under the fond auspices of her godmother, Lady Bridlington. Knowing it to be her duty to marry well, Arabella’s besetting sin is impulsivity and this leads her to claim, before she even arrives in London, a wealth she does not possess to quash the arrogance of one Mr Beaumaris, a nonpareil of no mean order. Guess who turns out to be really, really important.

Also featuring Beau Brummel in one of his only speaking roles in Heyer, forays into the poverty and social problems of London, and a beguiling mongrel named Ulysses.

Best moment: at the beginning, when they go through her mother’s old clothes at the Parsonage and plan her wardrobe for London. Makeover scene!

For non-nauseating children – Frederica

Frederica Merriville comes to London chiefly to see her beautiful younger sister, Charis, well married. To this end she blithely enlists the help of the Marquis of Alverstoke, and to the surprise of all who know him, this indolent nobleman lets her. This is a favourite, however, not for the ensuing romance, but for the activities of Frederica’s two youngest siblings, Felix and Jessamy. These two clever and energetic boys take the combined efforts of Frederica and Alverstoke to handle, though they may have the best of intentions.

Special mention: To the Baluchistan Hound.

For high adventure – The Talisman Ring

A mystery and a romance in one, this is one of the more farcical of Heyer’s plots, dashing heroes and vivacious heroines solving a years old mystery against a backdrop of a rambling old estate, family struggles and smugglers.

Ludovic Lavenham has been on the run for years, after being wrongfully accused of a busy night of murder, theft and cheating at cards. When Eustacie de Vauban flees her grandfather’s home to avoid a marriage to her cousin, Sir Tristram Shield, she inevitably and almost immediately runs into the disgraced and exiled Ludovic. Thus begins the young couple’s attempts to clear Ludovic’s name, aided and abetted by Miss Sarah Thane and Sir Tristram himself, outwitting Bow Street Runners, excisemen and the sinister Beau Lavenham en route to a happy ending.

Special mention to: Sir Hugh Thane’s total indifference to the law and refusal to ever be ruffled.

For London – Cotillion

Kitty Charing, ward of the incredibly rich and incredibly miserly Matthew Penicuik, finds herself named his heir on the condition that she marries one of his great-nephews; Jack Westruther, Freddy Standen, Lord Dolphinton or Hugh Rattray. This, without ever having seen London, or done anything very much but live in a drafty old house with Mr Penicuik, in a tedium occasionally broken only by visits from the great-nephews, most frequently and memorably the romantic Jack Westruther. Neither Jack nor Kitty appreciate having their hands forced in the matter of marriage however, and when Jack fails to arrive on the appointed day to make Kitty an offer, she decides that by hook or by crook she is going to London, and Jack will be made to regret not offering for her.

Resourceful Kitty cajoles Freddy Standen into a fake engagement in order to give her a London season. Freddy, kind-hearted and generous, does not wish to be married, has no interest in the prospective fortune and thinks Jack is not quite the thing, but he allows himself to be convinced and the young couple head to London. While most Heyer’s are either set in or feature London at some point, Cotillion is excellent for introducing the reader to the city through the eyes of the innocent Kitty Charing, expertly guided by man-about-town Freddy.

Freddy, who seems at first a silly creature of fashion, proves himself to have a sensible head on his well-tailored shoulders and is surprisingly capable at manoeuvring Kitty out of the various coils she inevitably gets herself into.

Basically, I heart Freddy, so there.

Best moment: Dolphinton repeatedly hiding in a cupboard in fear of his mother, or any of Freddy’s reactions to social faux-pas.

For an unlikely hero – The Foundling.

If you’re not looking for pistols at dawn and men striding around between fights, if you’re not interested in heroines who are stunningly beautiful and inevitably take the town by storm, if you’re not vibing fancy balls but would rather like to see plain Mr Dash, of Nowhere in Particular, be the hero and get the girl, then Heyer has provided The Foundling.

The Duke of Sale (known as Gilly) is fed up of the over-protective, constant care of his uncle and his household. With a staff who have all known him forever and an unfortunate reputation for ill-health, he has been cosseted and sheltered his whole life and has finally had enough when he discovers his uncle has  now picked out a wife for him. However much he might like Lady Harriet, there is a limit, and telling only his dashing big cousin Gideon, Gilly heads off into the unknown, on a daring excursion of freedom in the English countryside.

Of course the English countryside is so full of bandits, bad lots, blackmailers, foundlings and runaways that there’s hardly room for a Duke as well, and Sale is quickly embroiled in the fortunes of both the lovely, extremely dim, Belinda and the redoubtable and stubborn Tom.

Special mention to: The Gideon/Gilly dynamic.

I must also just mention Heyer’s murder mysteries (excepting the wretched Penhallow, which I have just finished, and I was never more deceived in a book!), mostly set in the 1920s and 30s, and very much of the Golden Age of crime. Although Heyer does not perhaps reach the heights of Christie in her characterisations or her policemen, she uses them adeptly and cleverly, and I unhesitatingly recommend. Perhaps start here with Envious Casca, reissued recently as A Christmas Mystery; a proper country house murder.

WARNING: If you are buying Heyer’s romances, be aware that the newest runs by Abe books are full of irritating little errors. Some are obvious, some are more confusing and could be an obstacle to first-time readers. The older runs are much better edited!

Pair With: Malbec. This will go delightfully with the distinct, lean flavours of Heyer’s writing, and stands up well as a pleasant drink on its own, cheerful and softer on the pallet than the bruiser reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux.