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I had originally attempted to read The Lady in the Lake one of those days at university long ago (well, 4-5ish years, but for someone whos only just crossed into his 25th year its a lot, Ive got the Zimmer in the wings), unfortunately every copy of the book at Waterstones had been printed with page 113 (at least I seem to remember it was, a curiously useless piece of remembrance there) printed with the plate backwards and so the text could only ever have been read in the mirror.
So it was that I never did finish the Lady in the Lake. But before I segue into the novel let me preface it by saying two things (that may be of interest). I have seen the movie by 1930s comedy-thriller heartthrob Robert Montgomery (youve gotta love Trouble for Two!), which is a curious film for its entirely a subjective narrative. For those who have no idea what that means (and why should you?): the film is shown, literally, from Montgomerys point of view, hence from Marlowes (would you believe it, hes also the star what a man!). Now if youre already asking yourself: who is Marlowe? Well then, were in trouble already. Philip Marlowe is Chandlers ubiquitous Private Eye, who works for $25 dollars a day and never takes on divorce cases ( a nod to his ethics, though as in Farewell My Lovely, hes referred to as a slot machine, the none-too-subtle connotation being hell do anything for money).
But I digress, slightly. Like many of the adaptations of Chandlers novels, theyre never quite Chandler, the movie has to accommodate itself to an audience expecting certain generic convention and themes, and this one plays around a great deal with the story and the characters and can be frustrating at first. But if youve seen this film, dont be tricked into thinking that youve read the book, because you havent.
Second prefatory note: do not read Chandlers Killer in the Rain before reading this novel. As there is a short story titled, curiously: The Lady in the Lake, culled from Black Mask, that most seminal of 1930s pulp magazines. In popular fashion, Chandler culled the last fifty or so pages of the novel almost scene for scene from the short story. Unfortunately I read Killer in the Rain beforehand, which meant the ending was somewhat less of a surprise than it should have been. Yet this did not ruin the novel for me.
The answer to this is simple. It is also a sore point with me. Telling a story is one thing (the ability to tell one well is a great gift), the story being the soul point of the novel is another. Clear? No, OK. Think of those great stories with twists in the tails, or those books youve read, or films youve watched that youve returned to time and again. Does the story matter? Of course, if it had been no more than a hackneyed cliché of a million familiar plots then youd most likely have ignored them. No, we stay for the style, the finesse, the beauty, the characters and the sense of time and place. We stay for that ethereal, occasionally ephemeral something that is indescribable and yet so very hypnotice.
This is why I read Chandler. He is like William Gibson; he gives the illusion of the plot being the point of the novel, when in fact we stay for the evocation of LA and Bay City, for the characters, for the dialogue and for Chandlers inimitable style of writing.
But: the plot (even if it has only superficial importance) those whove come across my book reviews will know that I dont hold with long synopses (I usually skip them when reading Ops, to be honest; not out of laziness but preference) but sometimes they are useful. So in this case I shall give you a short précis.
Marlowe is brought in by the manager of a cosmetics firm, Derace Kingsley to find his wife who has apparently ran off to marry a man whose lifes work is to look good on a womans arm and take their money you know the kind. Only Kingsley bumps into this playboy and wonders where his wife is, Marlowe - naturally is called in to investigate and what happens then well, if you read the book then youll find out.
Did I promise you a short précis? Yes, I did. It was short, anyway still, I hate to give the story away to anyone who has not and may want to read the novel, I may not believe the point of Chandler is the story but that doesnt mean any one of you has to agree with me. But to return to an earlier point, that this novel is not about story, and this is my way of labouring the point.
Chandlers Marlowe exists in LA that is part reality, part imaginary. Hollywood exists in Marlowes world, as does Bel Air, and all the other concomitant parts of the city, including South Central (there is a social element to Chandler, his special loathing goes out to the well-heeled not those forced into a ghetto) except for Santa Monica, with which he has replaced with his very own locale: Bay City. For Chandler Bay City epitomises the corruption inherent within the great USofA. Here the cops are as brutal, if not more so, than the gangsters, bribes are an accepted currency and the appearance of peace and prosperity hides a grim, corrupt if not evil interior. There is something profoundly vile about it, especially as the earlier quote regarding Marlowe being a slot machine, looking good to anything to do with money; this is Chandler using subjective dialogue. Marlowe cares nothing for wealth (he returns Terry Lenoxes $5000 note in The Long Goodbye in disgust at his errant friends fall from [relative] grace) and it is those that love it, horde it and use that believe Marlowe is the same as they are. They are sadly mistaken; deluded and unable to recognise or understand what the values that motivate Marlowe. There is always the undercurrent of disgust and quiet loathing emanating from Marlowe towards these people that exactly mirrors Chandlers own desperate hatred of corruption.
Chandler worked for many years in the upper echelons of the oil industry and came face to face with this corruption, it surrounded him, swallowed him up and finally he left the industry to literature (noticeably the perverse family, the Sternwoods, in The Big Sleep have made their millions from oil). The casual corruption if not his inspiration was at least his vehicle. As far back as when Chandler was a journalist in London, he was clearly a man of letters, but LA allowed Chandler to crystallise his view of the world, where he lived a life surrounded by duplicity. His life was one of frustration. His early years were ones of being an outcast, as is Marlowe. His mother was sent to Ireland with the young Chandler to live with disapproving relatives. Finally he found his way to England and London, from there to Germany and back again to remain London for some years. He grew into a man working as a journalist and writing occasional poetry; then he returned to the US and wooed his future wife from her husband. At the showdown Cissy, his wife to be, declared that she loved her husband but loved Chandler more. And so Chandler and Cissy were married. Only Cissy was 20 years his senior and Chandler found himself sleeping with his secretaries.
If this seems another digression, it is to miss the point. Norman Mailer wrote that all writers need to be a little depressed. Chandler suffered not depression (though he no doubt did after Cissy died but then he drank himself to death) but being a pariah, sexual frustration and alcoholism. Everything he lived, everything he felt seemed to be channelled into Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is Chandlers catharsis, a vehicle for all the nobility he felt was within him. A crusader roaming the mean streets far from Chandlers own beachfront home. It is no accident that Marlowe was originally named Mallory, after Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte D'Arthur. Hence Marlow is a knight, if not in shining armour but grubby rain coat. Marlowe is very much Chandlers alter-ego. Noble, stubborn but very much alone.
Marlowes loneness seems somehow integral to the novel, to all of Chandlers novels. It is like a stamp of virtue. He has an eye for the ladies and yet he never yields to the seductive glances of duplicitous dames. Why? Marlowe has nothing to lose except his virtue, his honest and self-reliance. Yet the character (and hence Chandler) never falls into the trap of seeing all the women in the novel(s) as tramps. There is the slightly inept, but lovingly drawn journalist in Bubbling Springs. Then Kingsleys lover-secretary (ringing any bells?): Adrienne Fromsett, who appears harsh as the novel begins and slowly a both noble and beautiful character is fleshed out. She could easily be written as an ice-maidenish, disapproving, stringently virtuous woman (ala Orfamay Quest in The Little Sister), but rather she is imbued with a generosity of spirit that is refreshing when compared to Crystal Kingsleys flighty, capricious promiscuity (all the more so for the man she runs off is clear after her money more than he is after her.) and Muriel Chess casual, murderous insincerity.
But what of Chandlers style I was referring to. In Killer in the Rain there is a classic (if rather obvious) Chandler-ism. While walking through an expensive hotel John Dalmas (a Marlowe prototype) notes that the carpet tickles his ankles. Stephen King said one of his favourite metaphors came from Chandler: my mind felt like a plumbers handkerchief (though surely that a simile). Chandler is evocative in the way all great writers are, he describes the world his story inhabits and the characters that inhabit that without appearing to do so. He uses two words when others would use two sentences and there is something poetic in his rhythms, in the laconic description. Marlowes casual observations are always spot on, his dialogue supremely witty, though not in the sense of a Dorothy Parker, but then wouldnt that simply be out of place? The wit is always covered by a blanket of necessary darkness.
The theme of dignity in a world that conspires to rob you of it, that eschews nobility for easy virtue and surviving a world that lives off avarice at any cost is always going to be meaningful in any society. Corruption stays the same, only the forms, names and ways change. The basic undercurrent, the brutality and the damage done are constants. So Marlowes traverse through it all, are always going to be thrilling in as much as we can vicariously wade through the corruption without it ever really touching us. Moreover wed like to imagine that we would do as Marlowe does, that we would never succumb to the easy ways out, to the paths that offer the least resistance. So we are on Marlowes side as he solves his mysteries and places some small amount order into the world.
Chandler ultimately evokes and world and places a million miles away from our lives and yet, as noted above, so close as to be breathed in. The sense of futility, of struggle and the occasional hope and perseverance are neither uplifting nor depressing. Chandler never gives us simple, easy answers. All answers come at a cost. Marlowes cost is that he is alone, friends are not his to keep; his nobility forces him apart from the world. He is useful and then he is gone, a spectre in a world of hungry ghosts. Such sophistication of morality and aversion to telling us the world is ultimately evil or almost offensively beautiful is shunned because Chandler realises that we are not children, that as readers we can accept life is not the proverbial bed of roses.
So we enter Chandlers world with our eyes wide open. We exit it exhilarated, thoughtfully, with a hint of melancholy and an undercurrent of hope.
This is really the reason why I read Chandler.
Derace Kingsley's wife ran away to Mexico to get a quickie divorce and marry a Casanova-wannabe named Chris Lavery. Or so the note she left her husband insisted. Trouble is, when Philip Marlowe asks Lavery about it he denies everything and sends the private investigator packing with a flea lodged firmly in his ear. But when Marlowe next encounters Lavery, he's denying nothing on account of the two bullet holes in his heart. Now Marlowe's on the trail of a killer, who leads him out of smoggy LA all the way to a murky mountain lake.