Wednesday, July 18, 2007

before it was camp

Farewell, My Lovely
By Raymond Chandler

You can tell the book's pretty old when "Negro" shows up in the first sentence. (first published in 1940) Given its age, I kind of had to excuse that sort of thing. Besides, it was one of the most entertaining books I've read in a very long time.

I'm not sure that I've ever actually read any of the classic detective fiction (unless homages count), but if this is what I've been missing, I need to get more of that stuff, now. Chandler doesn't bother writing perfect characters--his are positively riddled with flaws. Even the hero of the book, Philip Marlowe, while a typical noir hard-nosed good-looking-in-a-craggy,-tired-way PI with an unbelievable ability to sort out over-complicated plots and sift nuggets of truth out of mountains of crap, is a chain-smoking hard-ass who got fired from a job at the DA's office, is on a permanent quest to pickle his liver, and makes out with another man's wife because she asked him nicely and gave him "a smile (he) could feel in (his) hip pocket."

Like all classic detectives, he works alone, but Anne Riordan accidentally finds him at a crime scene, occasionally figures things out for him, and spends the entire book trying to get in his pants without actually letting him know that she wants him. Cute. She does manage to show up at many opportune times, and her involvement, though often overlapping what Marlowe discovers on his own, helps him to unravel a story involving three murders, a fake robbery, a real robbery, a missing person, and a scam psychic.

Admittedly, a lot of it is trite stuff; the cliches we've been seeing for ages. But Chandler wrote this in the forties, before everybody else picked it up. He did it first, so it's not trite at all--it's the style that everybody else copied. I could read this book over and over just for his descriptions. A portrayal of a character may last an entire paragraph before they get to say anything, just so you have a perfectly clear picture in your mind before you have to imagine them talking.

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck... He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

The descriptions of people and places are amazing, but there are also random similes that come out of the blue to slap you with a rubber chicken, just to make sure you're paying attention, and one-liner summaries that tell you all you need to know. Like the photograph of "a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

Chandler's characters are so sharp you expect to start bleeding as you run your finger down the page, reading slowly to not miss anything, and repeating things out loud to decide if you could ever get away with saying things "I bet she snaps a mean garter" a scant few pages after "I'm a Tibetan monk in my spare time." Even in a plot so complex James Bond would need a slide rule and a flipchart to figure it out, they seem believable, and the dialog is exactly what you want the dialog to be. Again, it has to be viewed in light of being written over half a century ago, but even now the interplay between Marlowe and anybody, from a high society dame to a corner hot dog vendor, just... crackles. Few preceded Chandler in this game (Dashiel Hammet, for instance), but everyone who followed was following in his footsteps. If that doesn't qualify Chandler as literary hero material, then at least put up a statue for Marlowe, who gets internal dialog lines like:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

Marlowe gets the crap kicked out of him three or four times, and simply regards it as a matter of course for the job. Despite all his faults--which he freely admits, nearly to the point of celebrating them--he's a good man. He won't take someone's money if he can't or won't do the job, and sometimes makes his job harder to justify the money they want to pay him anyway. He lies to protect innocents from criminals and crooked cops, and despite being a guy who has to work on the very edges of the law, he maintains a very solid sense of right and wrong. Except for the whole philandering thing. I have to respect that.

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posted by reyn at 6:04 AM


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