Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review: Paul Tremblay, The Little Sleep (2009)

The Little Sleep might as well come with a questionnaire stapled to its cover asking you to compare it to The Big Sleep, so I will oblige the marketing campaign by looking for connections: The settings have little in common (1930s Los Angeles vs. 2000s Boston), and there is a superficial plot connection (a daughter or two with a powerful father, pornography, and blackmail figure in the events of both books). But when you come to the novels' protagonists, things get interesting. The most obvious connection between Philip Marlowe and Mark Genevich is their preferred mode of communication: sarcasm. In general, the writing style of author Paul Tremblay is almost a parody of Raymond Chandler's hardboiled voice: the world-weary wisecracks and noir metaphors (categories that sometimes overlap) come in an unrelenting stream. There are so many of these touches in The Little Sleep that some are bound to fall flat, but the novel's strategy is to overwhelm: Readers will barely have time to smile or roll their eyes at a writerly flourish before the next one comes along.

The important thing, though, is that
The Little Sleep deals with more than solving a mystery and cracking wise, as did The Big Sleep before it. As a writer of mysteries, Raymond Chandler was plain awful. Critics excuse (and sometimes even praise) his convoluted plot lines because the critics are dazzled by the creation of Philip Marlowe, who ranks as perhaps the most fascinating character in the history of the detective genre (Sherlock Holmes notwithstanding). Similarly, the real attraction of The Little Sleep is Mark Genevich. Paul Tremblay's plot is mercifully simple compared to the messes that Raymond Chandler cooked up, but what kept me turning the pages of The Little Sleep was "Mark Genevich, narcoleptic detective" (as he is billed on the back of the book). I had expected that his narcolepsy would be played for laughs, but The Little Sleep is too smart for that. Genevich's struggles with his condition are of a piece with his Marlowesque voice: Like his hardboiled predecessor, Genevich is a damaged man with an arsenal of (mostly sarcastic) defense mechanisms, and he does not give up his secrets easily. So I will read the next Mark Genevich mystery for the same reason that I read the Philip Marlowe mysteries: not because I want to read a mystery but because I want to spend time with a fascinating character. Grade: A-

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