Philip Marlowe certainly seemed to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His curiosity about a man he just happened to see while walking down the street got him involved with -and in - several murders, the theft of a valuable jade necklace, several cops (all corrupt to some degree), hints of blackmail, considerable physical danger, and entanglements with a number of women. The "how" and "why" of it all may be found in Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, first published in 1929. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
For an author who really created only a handful of novels and a somewhat larger handful of short stories, Raymond Chandler exerted - and continues to exert - enormous influence on the American Private Eye detective story. Chandler's stories are generally quite gloomy - noir, in today's vocabulary of mystery elements - and certainly hard-boiled. That's certainly true of Farewell, My Lovely. What redeems them - for me, at least - is Chandler's extraordinary writing, especially his gift for very dark humor. If his characters live their lives down those "mean streets" that Chandler discussed in his essay on The Simple Art of Murder, then his heroes, at least, do so with few illusions.
The story begins almost accidentally. Marlowe has been looking – unsuccessfully – for a missing barber – a case he’s about ready to give up on. As he leaves the barber shop, his eye is caught by a very big man, walking down the street – as Marlowe describes him, “He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.” Marlowe goes on to describe the way the man is dressed and concludes, “he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
Curious, he sees the man enter what he calls a "dine and dice joint" called Florian’s. Marlowe follows him, just to see what will happen. What happens is a murder – and let me stop here for a moment to warn readers that we’re dealing with the kind of racial attitudes you might find in far too many places in the days before World War II. The murder of a black man is treated pretty lightly by most of the down-and-outers in Farewell, My Lovely; it’s clearly stated, for example, that police aren’t too likely to follow up the murder of a black victim. It can be unsettling to a 21st-century reader – but it’s really only a small part of the story.
At any rate, Marlowe is practically a witness to the murder – and here’s where the story starts to get complicated. Marlowe will be asked to find out what happened to a dancer named Velma – it seems that man whom Marlowe followed has just gotten out of prison and is looking for his old flame. Then, there’s another job for our detective, involving the theft and recovery of a valuable piece of jade jewelry – and that leads to more murders. There’s a phony medium, a kidnapping operation involving a private drug hospital, some tense moments on board a sea-going gambling casino, and – as the blurb on my copy of the book says – "more corruption than your average graveyard."
It's a grim read - or it would be if it weren't for Chandler's bitter but often very funny humor. It’s fair to say that many (if not most) of the American "private eye" books of the 20th century and even on into today follow the same basic paths that Chandler and his characters walked in Farewell, My Lovely and his other books. If you haven't read it - I suggest you do so.