Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Rating: 4 out of 5
Today I am very happy for The Classics Circuit to visit my blog, in the guise of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour.
Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940 by Raymond Chandler, the virtual inventor of the hard-boiled private detective. It’s the second novel he wrote, and features the iconic detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is not a very nice person sometimes (and one wouldn’t expect him to be, given the kind of people he has to deal with) but he’s honest, and strong, and brave to the point of foolishness. That’s what we want in a private eye, anyway, right?
This book initially frustrated me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. But after I finished it, I realized that this novel is an ideal mystery story. By that, I mean that it opens innocently enough, with Marlowe running into a hulk of a man named Moose Malloy, who happens to be searching for a former sweetheart named Little Velma. He just happens to be searching for her in the dive where she used to be a singer, however, and that’s where the problems start. The current employees and owner of the establishment are none too happy about Moose poking around there. Moose ends up killing the owner of the bar in a back room, and thus Marlowe gets sucked into the story, even though he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Moose vanishes and Marlowe begins to look for Velma, trying to track down the source of this mystery. Inevitably, of course, his questions lead to further questions, jewelry heists, gigolos, loose women, marijuana, a psychic who of course is not all he seems to be, more thugs than you can shake a stick at, crooked policemen, and murder. Even though it was initially frustrating because of the disjointed way things seemed to be developing, I think this story is the best kind of mystery story: the reader encounters a series of events that seem totally unconnected and don’t make very much (or any) sense, and the author manages to keep his audience off balance for a very long time until things start to be pieced together.
Even though Chandler finally pieces the puzzle together in a highly satisfactory way, one doesn’t read him merely for the story itself. His method of storytelling, along with his turns of phrase and imagery are as equally compelling as the plot itself. Take these examples, just a few of the MANY I highlighted as I read:
“Uh-huh,” the voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed.
“Put it up – or I’ll blow it out of your hand!” I snarled. My voice sounded like somebody tearing slats off a chicken coop.
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
I left her laughing. The sound was like a hen having hiccups.
The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building.
A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day.
Mr. Grayle stood up and said he was very glad to have met me and that he would go and lie down for a while. He didn’t feel very well. He hoped I would excuse him. He was so polite I wanted to carry him out of the room just to show my appreciation.
He smiled his first smile of the day. He probably allowed himself four.
Randall and I took our hats off. In that neighborhood that probably ranked you with Valentino.
The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.
If you like those, there’s way more than that, but I just got tired of highlighting and retyping all of the great passages.
Chandler also waxes poetic from time to time in his novels, and while it sometimes strikes a jarring note, it can be a ray of light in an otherwise dark tale:
Twenty minutes’ sleep. Just a nice doze. In that time I had muffed a job and lost eight thousand dollars. Well, why not? In twenty minutes you can sink a battleship, down three or four planes, hold a double execution. You can die, get married, get fired and find a new job, have a tooth pulled, have your tonsils out. In twenty minutes you can even get up in the morning. You can get a glass of water at a night club – maybe.
So Chandler is fun to read, definitely, but keep in mind a caveat: this novel was published in 1940, and what was socially acceptable then makes the reader of today cringe at least a little bit (and sometimes a lot). I won’t go into all of the references that Chandler throws in – and yes, I know that this is not a story about a Sunday School picnic on the fourth of July – but the undercurrent of racism in this story is a sad reminder of where this country once was – and by some accounts, is headed again. There’s also quite a bit of rough language, but it’s not that much by our modern-day standards (you can hear just as rough language watching prime-time TV these days), although I am sure it was eye-opening and risky in Chandler’s day.
All in all, this was a rewarding read, and whetted my appetite to read more Chandler.