Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler (1940)
It’s comfortable slipping into a Chandler novel, dropping in on Phillip Marlowe and his impossibly cool tough-guy perspective. Even if it’s too breezy to stay with you for very long you can appreciate it at the time, maybe similar to poetry.
There are a couple of things I love about Chandler’s writing. First, he doesn’t pander to his readers, never spelling out plot or dialogue when innuendo and realistic slang will do. It’s an incredibly intelligent narrative, and I always prefer having to work my brain a little bit instead of having the plot artlessly spoonfed to me. Here’s an example:
“You’re doing a lot of talking,” I said, “for a guy that holds cards.” 62
A less intelligent or less skilled writer would have had the protagonist say, “I think you’re bluffing,” or, “You’re full of shit,” or something along those lines, something blunter, perhaps crasser, something that definitely makes the point but comes nowhere near delighting the reader as Chandler does with his creative variation. Chandler just has Marlowe observe that his conversation partner is talking a lot, which is something that people with leverage and power don’t typically do. The accusation is implied and Marlowe’s cool intelligence is preserved.
Another example of a creative way to say something otherwise mundane:
I didn’t feel very well, but I didn’t feel as sick as I ought to, not as sick as I would feel if I had a salaried job. 114
So instead of coming out and saying somehow that Marlowe would have had to call in sick if he wasn’t self-employed, Chandler wraps it up in this pithy, nonchalant coolness that makes it exponentially more memorable.
The second thing I love about the writing — and sure it’s somewhat related to the above — are those snappy one-liners and vivid images he peppers throughout the story, as few besides Chandler can. Not all the similes land, but the ones that do are damn effective. Here is my favorite metaphor from this one, which he uses to end chapter 24 in beautifully poetic fashion:
The man in the back seat made a sudden flashing movement that I sensed rather than saw. A pool of darkness opened at my feet and was far, far deeper than the blackest night.
I dived into it. It had no bottom.
So yes, there are plenty of –ahem– lovely things about this book, but it also bolsters the feeling I started to have after the second Marlowe novel I read (The Long Goodbye, following The Big Sleep); I kind of feel like if you’ve read one Marlowe story you’ve read them all. I personally like Sleepthe best but that could very well be because it was the first one I read, and thus the freshest.
If you really love the Marlowe novels or are just wanting a diversion then I’d recommend this to you. If you haven’t read any of them yet it’s probably a fine place to start, though I’d recommend Sleep before it, just based on my own reading experience. I’m mostly happy to have read this, but a fair amount of the satisfaction comes from knowing I don’t really need to read any more Chandler — I’ve already enjoyed him at his best.