Friday, January 22, 2010

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Library of America, 1995.
(The book was originally published in 1940. This was the choice this month for the CT detective book club, a fitting one for the month that Robert B. Parker, one of Chandler's greatest admirers and legacies, died.)

My sister Forsyth once had a cat named Marlowe. That should tell you how we Michies feel about Raymond Chandler's well-known detective. Philip Marlowe is everything we admire in a man: observant, wry, sarcastic, creative, and funny (oh yeah, and sensitive underneath it all). He's the sort of person who would never find himself thinking, "Damn! I wish I'd said that instead of standing there like an idiot, unable to get my mouth to work." He's not the sort of man with whom a woman would want to find herself in love. He'd break her heart with his assumption that he was always right and knew better than she, especially about herself, and if that didn't do her in, his wandering eye and inability to commit himself probably would. However, if she just wanted someone with whom to enjoy some great nights out on the town (maybe even a little hint of danger, just to add some excitment, because one could never truly give into fear with a man like that on her arm), a "friend with benefits," he'd be the one.

Of course, if you're going to be that kind of a man, it helps to be put in the hands of another man, one who can write like Raymond Chandler could, with confidence and assurance and an unquestioned belief in the world his imagination had created. He was The Master of simile and metaphor. I know. I've said that Ross Macdonald gave him a run for his money, but on rereading this masterpiece, I have to say that Chandler really was The Master. That's not to say that I necessarily think Chandler was a better writer. They ultimately each created something very different within the detective novel genre, which makes it difficult for me to make the comparisons that everyone has always made between the two and to come to the conclusion that either was better than the other. What I do know is that when I read Chandler, I find myself questioning why there has been this trend to move away from adjectives and adverbs, and by extension simile and metaphor, if one is to be a "good writer." Almost nothing speaks "good writing" to me more than a clever, creative simile or metaphor. I mean, take a look at this,

"A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder..." (p. 768)

How else is one to convey how large that hand was without an adjective of some sort? Moving it away from mere adjective (which would have been my ineffective choice as a writer) and into this realm, though, gives the reader a complete picture. You can see it now, can't you? You know it's not a friendly hand, and you know how it felt and what it did even before he tells you ,

"...and squashed it to a pulp." (p. 768)

You also know you are in for an adventure, because this little event happened on the second page of the novel. Marlowe meets this giant of a man on the first page and is very soon the witness to a murder, the assigned "body guard" to a man who seems to be involved in some sort of blackmailing scheme, and the victim of a beating that leaves the man he is with dead on the side of the road. Naturally, some cute, bright chick, ripe to fall for Marlowe, appears on the scene after that little event, one with "...a face you get to like. Pretty, but not so pretty you would have to wear brass knuckles everytime you took it out" (p. 830) to take care of him and to be hurt when he spawns her awkward attentions. (Poor Marlowe. You have to forgive him for not knowing that in 2010 he'd never get away with all that he does in 1940.)

You think that somehow all this is related to Mr. Hand (my name, not Marlowe's. He would have come up with something far more clever for the guy if he hadn't learned his name before he had a chance to do so, because that's a fun trademark of his, choosing nicknames for people when he doesn't yet know their real names. My favorite is the cop he nicknames "Hemingway." I probably liked it so much, because it so confused the guy, who obviously had no sense of humor. You can tell Marlowe's level of disdain or admiration for a person depending on how he chooses his nicknames and how long he chooses to keep using them). Marlowe thinks it's all related to Mr. Hand, too, but it takes him a while (and a couple more near-death experiences on his part; enough booze to leave any other man incapable of solving 1 + 1, let alone a murder case; an obligatory scene with a highly seductive woman -- of course; as well as another murder) to figure out whether or not he's right.

Along the way, he has to put up with others who don't exactly have the "Holmsian" skills he possesses. They jump to conclusions without considering the evidence and facts, as happens in the following passage. I love this one, because it points out to you what a brilliant thinker Marlowe is, what kind of sense of humor he has, and exactly how he feels about having to deal with moronic police detectives,

"...We got him cornered. A prowl car was talking to a conductor the end of
the Seventh Street line. The conductor mentioned a guy that size, looking like
that. He got off Third and Alexandria. What he'll do is break into some big
house where the folks are away. Lots of 'em there, old-fashioned places, too far
downtown now and hard to rent. He'll break in one and we got him bottled. What
you been doing?"

"Was he wearing a fancy hat and white golf balls on his jacket?"

Nulty frowned and twisted his hands on his kneecaps. "No, a blue suit.
Maybe brown."

"Sure it wasn't a sarong?"

"Huh? Oh yeah, funny. Remind me to laugh on my day off."

I said: "That wasn't the Moose. He wouldn't ride a street car. He had
money. Look at the clothes he was wearing. He couldn't wear stock sizes. They
must have been made to order." (p. 792)

Sometimes, his patience just plain wears thin,

"'It's a swell theory,' I said. '[Name not revealed in case you haven't read the book] socked me, took the money, then he got sorry and beat his brains out, after first burying the money under a bush.'" (p. 825)

Hilarious, isn't it? In this case, he was wrong to lose patience so quickly, though. The detective is actually on to something. Marlowe, of course, is gentlemanly enough to admit,"I looked at him with admiration..." (p. 825)

This book is a page-turner, not just because you want to know what's happening, how it's going to end, but also because you can't wait to see that next clever quip, read that next brilliant description. Way-too-soon, no matter how hard you try to make it last (even when you play around with reading some of it in eBook form, which takes time for those of us who are just learning about eBooks, even when you begin to wonder, based on descriptions of traffic lights "bong-bonging" if traffic lights used to have bells and take the time to look that up on Wikipedia -- unsatisfactorily. The most you can gather is that they probably did, since early ones were based on train signals, although you do find out, interestingly enough, that the very first ones were gas-powered and run by policemen and that those stopped being used when one blew up, killing the policeman operating it), you will get to the end.

I mentioned in my last post for the mystery book discussion that I like an ending that leaves me hanging a little. It's gotta be hanging like a one-size-fits-all dress that's almost dry. You're looking at it, imagining whose it might be, and soon someone's going to come along, take it down, put it on, and it's going to look fantastic on her. Then, she'll lend it to her friend, and it will look fantastic on her friend as well. Chandler delivers just that sort of ending. You think you know what happened, but you're not quite sure. However, it doesn't matter. It works, no matter who's wearing it.


litlove said...

Must read Raymond Chandler - it's shameful that I haven't.

Rebecca H. said...

I really liked the book too, and so did everyone in the group, although we talked about some of the flaws too (racism, sexism, uncertain plotting). I really loved the writing -- what great lines Marlowe has! And Marlowe himself is an appealing character. I hope to read more Chandler at some point.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, please do! I'm dying to read your take on him.

Dorr, as always, I wish I'd been there. I've gotten so that I just have to try to ignore and/or be amused by the sexism and racism I find in these older books. I find it easier to be amused by the sexism. The racism is still hard to ignore, and I have a hard time finding it amusing. I wonder if that's a statement on how far I feel we've come, at least subconsciously. Perhaps, even though I don't think I do (I especially didn't during the 2008 Presidential primaries), I feel we've made more advances when it comes to fighting sexism than we have when it comes to fighting racism in this country, so I can laugh off the "old ways" more easily.