‘The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.’ – Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

April 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I just finished Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler and my head is so full of this astonishing jumble of (at times, frustrating) episodic brilliance that I can’t at the moment think or write about anything else.

There’s plenty of tension in this yarn, some of it generated by the interplay of opposites: good cop versus bad cop, a beautiful but deadly female versus a woman of genuine virtue and compassion. There are lots more characters, from the large yet love-struck and improbably named Moose Malloy to the unlikely – and distinctly unlikable – ‘Psychic Consultant’ names Jules Amthor.

And in the midst of it all, Philip Marlowe, licensed private eye, trying to make sense of it all.

For this reader, the strangest, almost inexplicable interaction occurs between Marlowe and a man called Red Norgaard. Marlowe is in search of a power broker named Laird Brunette. Red – he of the fire-colored hair and outsized build – plies the offshore waters of the Pacific in his motor boat, He offers to help Marlowe board a gambling ship illegally – i.e., with a gun. Their interaction is quite lengthy; in the course of it, Marlowe is moved to disclose something of himself that’s normally kept well out of sight. He begins by stating bluntly that he’s scared, then going on to elaborate.

“I’m afraid of  death and despair,” I said. “Of dark water and drowned men’s  faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette.”

Red is a straight arrow of a guy. He’s not at all stupid but he’s not given to existential ruminations either. His reaction to Marlowe’s disclosure:

He chuckled. “You had me going for a minute. You sure give yourself a pep talk.”

Somehow, though, Red has touched something deep in Marlowe. Perhaps it was a his straightforward kindness, his willingness to help a stranger on a dangerous mission.

Hardboiled protagonists are famously portrayed as loners. But in this instance, Marlowe needed a friend and, like a blessing, one appeared at precisely the right moment. Later, after his harrowing adventure at sea:

I thought of the giant with the red hair and violet eyes, who was probably the nicest man I had ever met.

(It’s a safe assumption that Marlowe does not meet many ‘nice’ men – nor women, for that matter – in his line of work.)

Figurative language abounds in Farewell, My Lovely, sometimes it’s almost hypnotic. Of Nulty the cop:

He hung up and scribbled on a pad and  there was a  faint gleam in his eyes, a light far back in a dusty corridor.

Other times it’s downright disconcerting. Of Moose Malloy, on the novel’s first page:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

(This made me think of Mercutio’s riposte to Romeo: “‘…’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a  church-door…'”)

Subsequently, still descriptive of Moose Malloy:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

Of a room just entered:

A couple of frayed lamps with once gaudy shades that were now as gay as superannuated streetwalkers.

There’s more, this mode of expression being one of the hallmarks of hardboiled prose. And this is probably as  good a place as any to quote a paragraph that seems to me emblematic of the style:

I got up on my feet and over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

And the plot? On the site Detnovel.com, Prof. William Marling calls it “disjointed.” Hah!  I call it all but incomprehensible. A multipliicity of twists and turns. A McGuffin in the form of a supposedly priceless jade necklace. Strange hand rolled cigarettes with secrets inside. Really, I was pretty much lost by the time we reached the back stretch. But you know what? It didn’t matter. By then I was all but mesmerized by the at times almost poetic urgency of the first person prose.

It has to be mentioned that Farewell, My Lovely has its share of ethnic slurs.The instances are not overabundant, but they are there, and they are jarring. Say what you will about “the times,” one wishes – I wish – that they could be made to go away. (This was in fact actually done in this country with post-World-War-Two editions of the works of Agatha Christie.)

I was prompted to read Farewell, My Lovely by the fact that it’s the June selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group. I’d actually been wanting to get back to Chandler for some time. This forms part of my extremely enjoyable program of returning to the classics of crime fiction. I’ve recently read these two:

 

Trent’s Last Case (1913) was termed by Dorothy L. Sayers to be “…a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original”; Agatha Christie called it “One of the three best detective stories  ever written.” (I’d like very much to know what Christie’s other two choices for this designation were.) The Robthorne Mystery is less well known. Published in 1934, this quintessential English village mystery turns on a puzzling question of identity. I though the plot exceptionally well wrought. John Rhode’s real name was Cecil John Charles Street. Also writing as Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne, he was extremely prolific. (See the ‘Bibliography’ section of his Wikipedia entry.)  I enjoyed The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

Farewell, My Lovely exists in two notable screen versions. The first was released in 1944, titled Murder, My Sweet, and starring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle –  sometimes called Helen Grayle, other times called something else.

The second version from 1975 retains the original title and stars Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling.

**************

  The Modern Library edition of Farewell, My Lovely that I just read also contains The Big Sleep, which I read years ago. This volume was published in 1995. Right after the last page of the novel, there’s a list of those who were on the editorial board at the time of publication:

Maya Angelou
Daniel J. Boorstin
A.S. Byatt
Christopher Cerf
Shelby Foote
Vartan Gregorian
Larry McMurtry
Edmund Morris
John Richardson
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
William Styron
Gore Vidal

Some very distinguished names. Most – but not all – have now passed from the scene.

I love the photo of Chandler on the cover of the Modern Library edition. The other photo of Chandler that I cherish is this one: Chandler and his wife Cissy both doted on Taki the cat.

The story of Raymond Chandler’s life is both fascinating and surprising. I recommend  A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Mike Duffy said,

    Thank you for your Raymond Chandler observations, Roberta. An intriguing and interesting account, as always!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Many thanks, Mike, and thanks again for your loyalty to this blog!

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