Today was the first day of classes for me, and I’m still reeling from the day. The first day of classes is never difficult — just introductions and going over the syllabus and maybe an activity or exercise or something — but it’s always a shock to be back in school again. I suppose it didn’t help much that I went on a 50-mile bike ride before heading off to class. That’s maybe not the best way to get myself ready. But it was so much fun. I went with Hobgoblin and one other friend, and we stopped to get cupcakes halfway through the ride, and the whole thing was lovely.
But on to books … my mystery book group met last Saturday to discuss Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, and it was a great meeting, as usual. I was glad to read Chandler this time around because he’s such an important figure in the genre and someone I hadn’t yet read. We had already read a number of books you might call hard-boiled — Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Cornell Woolrich — and it was time we got to Chandler.
I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and finished it feeling that I’d like to read Chandler again soon (although, of course, it probably won’t happen, given everything else I want to read soon). The funny thing is that this is SO not the kind of book I like. It’s plot-driven, first of all, and without much in the way of character analysis or direct discussion of ideas, and also without any complex, non-stereotypical female characters (well, arguably — there’s one who might count). It’s very stereotypically male and violent.
But still, it’s nice to read something different from the kind of thing I usually like. I won’t even try to tell you much about the plot, as that would be way too complicated. Basically, the main character Philip Marlowe follows a strange-looking, very, very large man into a bar, just because the situation looks interesting, and mayhem and murder ensue. In the course of investigating the violence — Marlowe isn’t actually hired to do this, but he doesn’t seem to have much else going on — he gets himself into a whole mess of trouble. He is attacked, drugged, warned away by the police, seduced (well, seduction is attempted, at least), attacked again, and attacked again.
The great thing about Marlowe is that he just keeps going. I think it’s his character and especially the way his character is portrayed through the first-person narration that I enjoyed so much about the book. There’s a bitterness and anger about how messed up the world is that keeps him going — that and the fact that he has to make a living somehow, although surely there are safer ways? As a private detective, though, he can work on his own, make his own rules, take the cases he wants, and look into things he wants to even if no one has hired him to do it. There’s a jaded, world-weariness about him, along with cleverness and surly quick-wittedness that seem to mask an inner, very well-hidden sentimental side. Why else would he put himself at risk for such an uncertain, ill-paid job, if he didn’t believe in the work, somehow, and think that what he is doing is worthwhile? Or maybe it’s just that he’d be bored otherwise. Or maybe he likes the danger and the excitement of it. There’s something mysterious about his motivation, and that mysteriousness is part of the appeal.
The other great thing about the book is the writing. Chandler gets the tone exactly right — lyrically bitter. He’s especially good with metaphor and simile:
I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of my office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk….
I looked at my watch once more. It was more than time for lunch. My stomach burned from the last drink. I wasn’t hungry. I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief….
A girl passing me on the way from the elevators back to her work turned and gave me one of those looks which are supposed to make your spine feel like a run in a stocking.
He also has a great sense of humor, and I laughed out loud at a lot of passages. Here’s how one chapter opens:
I was sitting on the side of my bed in my pajamas, thinking about getting up, but not yet committed. 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. My head hurt and felt large and hot and my tongue was dry and had gravel on it and my throat was stiff and my jaw was not untender. But I had had worse mornings.
It was a gray morning with high fog, not yet warm but likely to be. I heaved up off the bed and rubbed the pit of my stomach where it was sore from vomiting. My left foot felt fine. It didn’t have an ache in it. So I had to kick the corner of the bed with it.
There’s something exhilarating about the language in the book — exhilarating as Marlowe’s adventures are, maybe. It’s such a pleasure listening to him wise-crack and swagger in such wonderfully poetic language.
13 responses to “Farewell, My Lovely”
I’ve long wanted to read Raymond Chandler but somehow have forgotten about him. My favorite ‘crime writer’ is Michael Connelly, whose writing style has been compared to Chandler. So that’s how I heard about RC. I’d like to get advice on which RC book I should read if I’m just to read only one of his books. Any suggestions?
You can easily slip into manly arabesque of crime, love, life by reading any of his books.
The expected asnwer would be “The big sleep” (followed by an evening with deli & your favourite drink&blanket watching the movie with L.B.and H.B.)
My favourite would be the long goodbye.
I have never read Chandler and ought to! There’s loads of academic criticism about him now, crime having become a really fashionable genre for critique. You make him sound very appealing – in a louche, degraded sort of way, Dorothy! 🙂
I’ve not read Chandler but I will eventually. I did watch and old b&w movie of one of his books though that had Marlowe as the detective and I was surprised at how often he got beat up. I always had this image of Marlowe being a tough guy but he wasn’t, at least in the movie I saw.
Those are great passages–I like writing like that as I can really see in my mind what the writer is trying to convey (I think that’s partly why I am such a slow reader as I have to imagine it all as I’m going). I don’t know why I’ve never read anything by Chandler–I’ve also read Hammett and James Cain (your group should read The Postman Always Rings Twice sometime). I am going to dig out something by him now. I’d love to be in a mystery reading group–and you guys always pick such good books!
Great review/post! Chandler is the best, one of a kind, which is surprising because hard-boiled crime fiction seems like it would be generic, and you have writers like Hammett who are so close by. But there’s something about the writing, and the humor, as you point out, and the realism, the existentialism that’s a little bit French, and Chandler is also an English writer, despite writing such pure American fiction. It’s a wonder, and you should make it a point to dive in again as soon as possible–they’re fairly hypnotic books and go quickly. They’re always interesting and captivating and there aren’t many of them; you can get all the Chandler you might need very quickly. The other big thing, that you didn’t note, was the portrait of L.A. and SoCal–though you got “the bong bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard etc.” It’s extraordinary literature and Americana, set against the cultural backdrop of the golden age of Hollywood, exposing the lie and rough underbelly and then some. I’m surprised that so many of your cronies around here, who are so smart and love books and lit so much, haven’t read Chandler before. I should make some hard-boiled remark about it being a chick thing, but I wouldn’t get it right.
I love Chandler, and this fantastic post reminds me why (and motivates me to read more of him soon). You get it exactly right with the “lyrically bitter” voice and the wise-cracking sense of humor.
I read this some time ago, and I was fascinated by the description of the casino ships that used to be anchored off LA, and which play a big part in the story. That section was particularly memorable. I have seen the movie of “The Big Sleep” and I prefer the book. I think the movie tried to correct some
of the book’s plot flaws but did not really succeed.
Arti — this is the only Chandler I’ve read, so I don’t really know where to suggest you start, except that, as Beth says, The Big Sleep is probably his most famous, and I’ve heard good things about The Long Goodbye. And Farewell, My Lovely is really lots of fun.
Beth — thanks for the input. I’d really love to watch movies based on Chandler novels; I’ve got Murder, My Sweet in my Netflix queue as a place to start.
Litlove — oh, he is appealing all right! 🙂 I can imagine about the criticism on the genre; one of Hobgoblin’s grad school people has written a book on it I might look at at some point. It would be useful for our group discussions.
Stefanie — yeah, isn’t that surprising? But he does get beat up ALL the time — he’s tough, but in the sense that he just keeps coming back and doesn’t let a beating keep him down. I want to see those B&W movies!
Danielle — Cain is an excellent suggestion! We’ve done Hammett already, and we all liked him a lot. I think you’ll like Chandler when you get there. I definitely enjoy the group discussions a lot — I learn so much from other people in the group. I know what you mean about reading slowly; I like to take in all the details too.
Zhiv — thanks! You describe his appeal well. I’d forgotten about him being English — interesting background. And yes, the portrayal of LA was great. I thought Ross Macdonald did a great job with the area as well. And yeah, you are probably right about it being a chick thing (even if you were joking) — he’s much better about his male than his female characters, for one thing. But still, it’s worth it for the quality of the writing.
Emily — how fun that you are a Chandler fan too! It would be great if you got motivated to read him again soon.
Ed — I agree that the gambling boat scenes were pretty amazing — a whole world the book captures. And what Marlowe does on the boat is pretty amazing too. I generally think the book is better than the movie, but I still like watching movie versions anyway.
I’m so glad we finally read Chandler, too. Now, we just need to read some Christie (someone else we seem to have been avoiding. Is it because we’re afraid she won’t have the same appeal she did when we were all teenagers?). Anyway, I’m also glad you liked it. His sense of humor is just brilliant. And if you’re going to read plot-driven, well, this is they way to go.
Emily — well, we’re doing Highsmith next, so someone else will have to choose Christie. I think we’ve been avoiding her because some members of the group don’t like Christie at all, and it’s hard to pick something someone is sure to dislike. But we have to read her at some point, right?
I haven’t read any Chandler. This sounds very nice!
Raymond Chandler is not something I usually read too but I found I loved and delighted by ‘The Long Sleep’, the first book where Phillip Marlowe was introduced. He’s such a lovable but rough character.