Friday, March 4, 2016

Farewell, My Lovely

Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 13+

Years ago, when I reviewed Raymond Chandler's first novel The Big Sleep, I called it the first in a long series of Philip Marlowe mysteries. Actually, it isn't. Aside from a good-sized list of short stories, Chandler only completed seven novels; he left an eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death in 1959, to be completed 30 years later by Robert B. Parker, who also wrote an original novel featuring Marlowe titled Perchance to Dream. Based on having read only two of his seven novels, though, I perceive Chandler to be one of the great American novelists. And Philip Marlowe does have this on Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade: seven novels is seven times as many as one.

I loved The Big Sleep, and read it multiple times. Nevertheless, this book has stayed untouched on my bookshelf for several years. In part, I think, I was holding out for the whole series, so I could read them back to back. But as soon as I finally started reading this book, I was so caught up in the world of the pre-1940 Los Angeles P.I., it was almost as if I had never left it.

In this adventure, based in part on two or three short stories published in the early 1930s, Marlowe stumbles by accident into a mystery thick with suspects, motives, betrayals, and strange coincidences. Pausing on a sidewalk after losing the trail of a runaway husband, he spots a gigantic, loudly dressed, white goon pushing his way into a black nightclub. He lets his curiosity draw him into what becomes a murder scene. Noting that the police detective assigned the case shows little interest in solving it (political incorrectness advisory: racism was a thing in 1930s L.A.), Marlowe does a little digging himself, only to be distracted by another case in which his client is murdered almost under his nose.

The two cases prove to have unexpected connections, leading Marlowe to match wits with a crooked psychic adviser, two crooked cops and their crooked police chief, a crooked doctor who runs a crooked private hospital, and finally the crook who runs all the rackets in Bay City, California. And it all leads back to the sequence of events that started the whole thing, and a killer named Moose Malloy, and one of two beautiful women who have offered themselves to Marlowe during the course of his investigation. And naturally, it ends in blood, blood, blood.

Let me tell you about some of the things I love about Philip Marlowe. He has a mouth on him. The things he lets out of it, regardless of the social situation he's in at the time, vaguely suggest a self-destructive streak. But he is undeniably an original. Hardly a page goes by, and really very few paragraphs, in which he does not deliver himself of a rich bit of description, backed up by delicious and unexpected metaphors and dry, unsparing wit. He makes women vacillate madly between loving and hating him. He enjoys terrifying moments of intimacy with deadly men. He tries the patience of the cops, but he helps the good ones whether they want his help or not, and he helps some of the bad ones do better - often by thwarting their purposes and keeping key facts to himself until the crucial moment. He seems vulnerable and indestructible at the same time. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He admits to being scared to death, yet doesn't turn back. He's always the first to figure out how all the pieces fit together, though he inevitably does so too late to stop a tragedy that he will end up feeling in a way that only adds depth to his character.

Marlowe, and his creator, are a gift to the reader, bringing laughter, suspense, romance, sympathy with his sorrows, and a strange blend of horror and nostalgia for a hopelessly corrupt yet fascinating time. He is the patriarch of private detectives. He is the eternally appealing voice on the edge of a cityscape bleached by sunlight by day and smothered by darkness at night. He is the type of character who allows one to feel oneself to be at the center of the action in a novel that, in my estimate at least, approaches perfection.

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