Farewell, My Lovely is Raymond Chandler’s second Philip Marlowe novel, and its the second I’ve read. So far so good. I was impressed enough with Chandler’s first, The Big Sleep, to consider reading the others. I believe there to be at least seven. And for the most part I was entertained enough by Farewell, My Lovely, although perhaps it lacks the punch of The Big Sleep.
Philip Marlowe is our protagonist, and if there is a better main character in genre fiction of any kind, I’m struggling to think who it is. Sherlock Holmes is nowhere near as interesting as Marlowe, even if he does smoke a crack pipe. And for a character who supposedly brought the noir detective genre into existence, Marlowe sure is idiosyncratic. Okay, so he’s a tough guy, but he’s also bitter, somewhat prudish when it comes to women, and strangely stand-offish when it comes to money. He goes around poking his nose in other people’s business, getting drawn into a web of crime and deceit. He frequently gets himself beaten up, and steps back into the fray at precisely the moments when it would be advisable to walk away. But he’s the kind of guy who bobs back up when you knock him down, and doesn’t hold a grudge about it either. The quintessential private dick, then.
In terms of plot, Farewell, My Lovely is all over the place. It seems that Chandler has little more idea of what is going to happen next than Marlowe himself does, not to mention the reader. It’s like he’s plotting one page ahead. This gives the prose an edgy, unpredictable, but somewhat convoluted form. If I perhaps didn’t enjoy this novel quite as much as Chandler’s first, it is partly because the plot veered off in an unexpected and faintly ridiculous direction. Chandler isn’t so much constructing a genuine plot as leading the reader on a whirlwind tour of the dark and seedy world of late thirties California.
And what a fascinating world that is. Chandler has the gift of description, both of people and of places. These descriptions are narrated in a world weary style, which Chandler made his own. So we are given an insight into a world of crooked cops, illusionists and con men, murderous jewel thieves, and beautiful (and murderous) dames. It’s a tremendously familiar world as shown in hundreds of Hollywood films, most of which I’ve never seen. And this dark California, pre-WWII (for the U.S. anyway – this was published in 1940) is closer to our own world that would first appear.
Marlowe isn’t Superman, either. Watching the overly-hyped Ledger film The Dark Knight recently, I was annoyed at how invulnerable the Batman character had become. Modern moviegoers are subjected to a whole host of actual and supposed Supermen, and how I tire of the whole thing. Marlowe, on the other hand, is fallible. He’s human. And he makes mistakes. This makes him all the more endearing. The closest this novel has to a superhero is Moose Malloy, a bear of a man we see at novel’s opening looking for his lost love, Velma. This opening scene is possibly the best in the novel. Chandler even manages to work in a dig at Ernest Hemingway into his book, in which Marlowe gives a cop the nickname Hemingway, after ‘someone who repeated himself so often you eventually thought it must be meaningful’ (I’m too lazy to find the exact quote).
On to The Long Goodbye, then.