Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is the middle Marlowe: the fourth of seven mystery novels Chandler completed, all featuring the hard-boiled, Los Angeles-based "private operative," Philip Marlowe. If it seems familiar to readers of the previous installments (The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The High Window) it may be because they were all developed from the same, previously published short stories. This doesn't, however, necessarily mean they have no surprises, intriguing twists, or unique characters, each book its own. Ask me about this book, though: Did I guess whodunit? I answer: Yes. But now ask me: Did that diminish my pleasure reading the book? I answer: No.

Actually, the murders in this book - and there are several, all tangled together - were each done by a different character, some of whom were themselves victims of the later crimes. And if Marlowe isn't always there when the body drops, he is generally there when it bobs to the surface; or, in what seems to be a recurring theme in his detective career, it's there when he wakes up after being knocked out by a blow to the head. And even when both Marlowe and the reader seem to work out how it all happened at the same time, he saves this knowledge for the right time to reveal it, and you happily go along with him in his little manipulative game, because the effect of the full reveal on whoever else is left standing at the end is just priceless.

In this adventure, a businessman hires Marlowe to trace his missing wife, last seen a month earlier at their cabin in the mountains. Soon after that last confirmed sighting, Crystal Kingsley telegrammed her husband from El Paso, informing him she was planning to get a Mexican divorce and to marry a certain fast young man. But Kingsley says he has met said fast young man recently, and the guy denied running away with his wife. Marlowe visits the beefcakey Chris Lavery and gets the same story from him. But after a visit to the cabin in the mountains only turns up the dead body of the caretaker's wife, missing since the same day Crystal disappeared, Marlowe decides to take a second crack at Lavery and finds him dead too. Before he can get his head around these two murders, Marlowe finds reason to fault the suicide ruling in the death of a woman who lived across the street from Lavery, and he gets tangled up with some crooked cops, and he has a close encounter with that species without which no hard-boiled novel would be complete: the femme fatale. After that late point in the proceedings, only two more characters manage to die before the end of the book.

No surprise to anyone tuned into the themes of hard-boiled fiction, Marlowe's L.A. is a brutal, corrupt, dangerous place, full of deeply rooted disorders and complex man-woman issues that frequently, not to say regularly, work themselves out in murder. It's a place of darkness belied by the blinding sunshine, and of coldness made ironic by the suffocating heat. It's a place where cops boast about killing a case pretty, where it's unwise to turn your back to a curtained doorway, and where a little fear and loathing can take you a long way. Set sometime during World War II (the book rolled out in 1943), it is also set in an interesting between-time, in which rubber rationing for the war effort has already begun, but civil-defense blackouts haven't; in which urban homicide investigations include a touch of CSI, while a small-town constable might still engage in a quick-draw contest. It's a world where sudden enmities and strange, surprising friendships can flower at whirlwind speed, and in which one sees attractive people of both sexes as well as gruesome images of death. And through it all Marlowe threads his tortuous, wise-cracking, self-belittling, almost but not quite cynical way, kept going by his own notion of what is at least minimally right to do.

As usual, I got to the end of this book with a way-too-long list of classic Chandler lines that I wanted to quote in my review, including a wonderful meta-mystery speech in which Marlowe mocks the inevitable scene in which the villain, holding the sleuth at gunpoint, wastes time speechifying instead of pulling the trigger. This almost fourth-wall-breaking passage, in which Chandler seems to gaze at us over the rims of his spectacles with an ironic crease at the side of his mouth, doesn't prevent him from putting several long paragraphs in Marlowe's mouth later on, explaining to a seemingly surprised killer what the killer must already know. In such moments, an experienced mystery reader must confront the fact that, if the story is going to make sense, the reasons everything happened must, when revealed, be not very surprising. What then makes the mystery worth reading is the rich setting, the vivid characters, the sharp dialogue, and the sleuth who draws you willingly into his inner world. And that, no pun intended, this book has in spades.

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