Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

Book Review – The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

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First published in 1943, The Lady in the Lake is the fourth Philip Marlowe novel, and my fourth overall. Certainly not as famous as The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, it nevertheless came highly recommended to me on the basis that J. G. Ballard considered it his favourite Chandler novel. Having read it now, I can’t say I agree.

Chandler creates his own set of norms and stereotypes which, while initially unusual, eventually wear out from use. So in your typical Marlowe detective novel, the following things are certain to occur at some point:

– Marlowe talks to a sassy dame. She comes onto him but he staunchly rebukes her advances.

– The cops try to throw Marlowe off the case by threatening him or calling him a ‘shamus.’

– Marlowe pokes his nose into situations he knows he shouldn’t, and gets the crap beaten out of him as a result.

– Marlowe gets threatened with a gun, to which he offers an array of wisecracks in response.

– A chance encounter or situation gives Marlowe a vital clue which can advance the story.

– Someone offers Marlowe a large sum of money, which he refuses.

– And how could I forget, Marlowe drinks a pint of whisky, gets into his car and drives around the streets of L.A.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these events on their own, and they can work in concert too, but I felt with The Lady in the Lake that the pattern was becoming overly apparent to me. Worse, of the various mysteries in the novel, I was able to predict at least two of them, which is unusual for me. The first mystery is given away by the novel’s title (think about it – it’s not The Lady OF the Lake) and the second with an all too obvious plot gimmick in which two women are described as being virtually identical. Even I could tell that this was a set-up for a switcheroo.

So what actually happens in The Lady in the Lake? These novels usually open with Marlowe meeting the client for the first time; here he meets Derace Kingsley, who wants him to find his wife. This may involve driving up to (then) rural Little Fawn Lake. There’s also a guy called Chris Lavery hanging around. Up at Little Fawn Lake, Marlowe meets a country bumpkin with the unlikely name of Bill Chess. Chess almost whacks Marlowe a couple of times, and then he discovers his OWN wife’s body in the lake, in bizarre circumstances. It appears she’s been in there a month or so, since she said she was leaving him. There’s also mention that Kingsley’s wife was at the lake at the same time, and had the same appearance. You got that? SAME time, SAME appearance, DIFFERENT woman. This will be important later.

This novel features an even more bumpkin-like character, Sherrif Patton. He has a sticker on his car that says ‘Voters, Attention!  Keep Jim Patton Constable. He is too old to go to work.’ This got a laugh out of me.  Chess semi confesses to his wife’s murder and is taken away. Marlowe isn’t convinced and does a bit of snooping. There’s always some snooping in Marlowe novels, and it’s all part of the fun. Chandler’s technique is to pile mystery upon mystery, complexity upon complexity. It often works quite well, but not, to my mind, in The Lady in the Lake. By the end the only thing I was certain of was that I had successfully predicted the novel’s major plot twist.

And it ends. I didn’t dislike this novel while reading it, and I got through it in until 24 hours, but on reflection I believe this to be the poorest of the four Marlowe novels I’ve read thus far. The Little Sister is up next.

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  1. November 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

    Kick-ass post, great looking blog, added it to my favorites!

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