Saturday, August 18, 2018

Farewell, my Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler's novel "Farewell, my Lovely" is a 1940s noir classic, and rightly so; but its also, like a number of other older books I've read recently - "The Man in the High Castle", "The Day of the Locust" - a very strange novel. I'm not sure whether it is it's strangeness or its familiarity - those noir tropes that Chandler partly invented - that make the book so compelling a read.

Philip Marlowe is our hero, a down on his luck Private Eye, who is also our slick talking narrator. He is looking for a missing husband, a mundane job, when he sees a man thrown out - literally hurled out - of a bar. Intervening he gets more than he bargained for, coming across the aptly named Moose Malloy, just out of jail and looking for the barmaid or showgirl that he was in love with when he went in. The bar has changed - its now in a black quarter of the city - and the new proprietors don't take kindly to the interruption, but Malloy is not a man to be trifled with - he is 6ft 5inches tall and a size to match. This man mountain literally drags Marlowe upstairs with him, getting him involved even if he didn't intend to be. It doesn't go well - and Marlowe finds himself having to report a killing to the local police, who, in 1940s L.A. aren't particularly interested in a dead black man.

Marlowe, with nothing much else to do, starts his own investigation, and this is where the convoluted plot kicks in. If Malloy is looking for the mysterious Velma, then this set back is unlikely to stop him. Marlowe tells the police they should look for the lady, but they're more interested in wild goose chases. Marlowe does the basis work himself and finds another dead end but something doesn't quite add up. The widow of the previous bar owner is definitely holding something back - even hiding the photograph of Velma. It seems that the Malloy/Velma plot is a shaggy dog story, when Marlowe gets called up by an unreliable playboy, Marriott, to ride bodyguard with him as he pays a ransom for some missing jade that has been stolen - on behalf of a rich woman he has been spending time with. The money is good, and Marlowe goes along with it, even though it doesn't feel right. He finds himself knocked unconscious and his patron, Marriott, dead. So now we have a real crime. He is partially rescued by a daughter of a cop, and sometime journalist Annie Riordan. She immediately takes a shine to Marlowe, but he only likes dangerous women.

But to detail the plot - which includes plenty of scrapes where the hapless Marlowe gets beaten around, drugged, and even incarcerated at one point; as well as a corrupt Bay City police force; gambling ships off the coast; and a bizarre encounter with a medium - would be to miss the point. Chandler's skills are in the evocation of a down at heel L.A. and the characters that reside there. Marlowe speaks in a coarse street slang of his own, even to Riordan, yet he has a certain rogueish charm, which certainly appeals to the rich temptress he meets when he begins investigating the jewel theft that led to Marriott's death.

The novel was cobbled together from three separate stories, which I think explains its complex structure, but it hardly matters, because though the cloth might be uneven, the weave is expertly done. Who knows what the connection is between this motley crew of characters, the most important of which are missing (Velma and Malloy) or dead, Marriott. Marlowe follows his nose, and doesn't entirely share his hunches with the audience.

Every page is fast moving, yet there's also a tendency to write compelling descriptive passages about the city. Together it makes the novel an absolute joy to read however complex the actual tale being told is. Even at this distance - the book was written in 1940, the prose is alive and exciting, and a template for any number of lesser writers since. Marlowe, famously portrayed on film by Bogart, is himself a fascination of whom we know little of his background, but a lot of his character. This is the first Chandler I've read, and I hope to read more.

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