Near the end of Farewell, My Lovely, a beautiful woman gazes up at Chandler’s legendary shamus, Phillip Marlowe, and says:
“’You’re so marvellous… So brave, so determined, and you work for so little money. Everybody bats you over the head and chokes you and smacks your jaw and fills you with morphine, but you just keep right on hitting between tackle and end until they’re all worn out. What makes you so wonderful?’”
It’s a question that you could ask not only about the prototypical hard-boiled detective, but about the author himself. What is it that elevates both the character and the writer into a league of their own?
It’s definitely not the novel’s plots, at least, not if it’s judged by the standards of a traditional mystery where everything is supposed to be wrapped up in a neat little package at the end.
At the start of the novel, Marlowe irrepressible curiosity lands him in the grip of a crook as big as a beer truck, Moose Malloy. Malloy has just been released from prison, and he decides to celebrate his freedom by murdering a “nigro” who won’t help him track down an old flame, Velma. Her whereabouts and identity serve as the central mystery, in that they open and close the story, but in Marlowe’s search for answers, he manages to find trouble of all kinds. There’s a murdered Hollywood playboy; an unfaithful millionaire’s wife; a drug-dealing psychic with a pungent native American bodyguard; an earnest police chief’s daughter who shares Marlowe’s nose for trouble; and cops of all shapes and types: sharp and dim, tough and soft, earnest and crooked and everything in between.
Trying to figure out how it all ties together is tougher than Chandler’s protagonist (he wrote in a futile effort to mimic the author’s amazing similes). The Big Sleep was so convoluted even its author lost track of all its plot threads; in comparison, Farewell, My Lovely’s central mystery provides less direction, more of the action turns out to be ancillary, and the resolution is even murkier: I had to read the “parlour room scene” three or four times to make sure it touched on everything.
Not that it matters: if anything, Chandler’s second novel is even more enjoyable than his first.
The character of Marlowe is a big reason for this, and while he hasn’t developed since he’s premier outing – he seems to have past the point of change – he is given greater depth.
Marlowe doesn’t solve mysteries Sherlock Holmes-style, using encyclopaedic knowledge or near supernatural powers of observation, although all play some part in his repertoire. Instead, he watches people, and tries to push their buttons, and uses his hard-won knowledge of the dark side of human nature to make deductions. More often than not, his deductions are wrong. But, as the above quote suggests, he keeps following up leads and rattling cages until he lands the solution.
The most exceptional thing about Marlowe, the thing that draws the reader to him, is his wit. He’s almost always ready with a quip, even if he has a gun pointed at him, and his narration is ruthless in taking the rich or corrupt down a peg. If anything impresses or intimidates him, he usually understates its impact.
His indecipherable code of honour is another fascinating element of the character. His dogged pursuit of answers seems less about justice, which he shows no belief in, and more about compulsion, driven by a restless intellect, pride, and some inexpressible searching. These traits make him the perfect detective for the cynical, lost inter-war years.
But he’s a man who understands his limits, and they’re more apparent in this outing, which makes him more engaging. I stumbled across an excellent essay on how his masculinity is constructed, and how his cool demeanour tends to break down around attractive women. It also confirmed my impressions of his having an unexpected homoerotic attraction to a man, Red, whom he meets at the docks. Read it here.
The same website also provided an equally fascinating essay which uses the notion of dialectics to analyse Chandler’s writing style, demonstrating how the relationship between two conflicting ideas gives his prose vitality. To quote a quote:
“’the mixture of toughness and sentimentality, for instance; the anti-literary stance which coexisted with intense literary ambition; initially he seemed a ruthlessly modern writer… it took longer to see the underlying romanticism.’”
Read the full essay here.
Chandler gives away one of his major influences, which I should have picked up on, when Marlowe nicknames a bent cop Hemingway. Not being much of a reader, the cop asks, “Who is this Hemingway person at all?” Marlowe replies, “A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you believe it must be good.” This joke sounds disrespectful, even mocking, unless you look at Chandler’s writing style. Hemingway’s signature use of declarative sentences with no subordinating conjunctions is especially obvious in Chandler’s descriptions of landscapes.
But where Chandler really excels is in his similes, which are both witty and excellent at establishing character. Reading them is like taking a master-class avoiding cliches. The only danger for wannabe writers is that they’re irresistibly imitable, explaining the legions of second-rate Chandler know-offs.
In the past, I’ve made the mistake of assuming that detective fiction was not literary. I assumed because it was easy to read, and its conventions were so well established, that there couldn’t be much going on below the surface. But bothering to research and reflect on Farewell, My Lovely has shown me how wrong I’ve been. Wonderful.
The Dialectic Aspect of Raymond Chandler’s Novels – Ray Newman