Farewell My Lovely
Library of America, 1995
The problem with Chandler is that every time I read him I hear voices: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and even Gerald Mohr (thankfully, not Elliot Gould). Because I’ve listened to dozens of Richard Diamond radio shows Dick Powell is the foremost of the voices, but they’re all there and as I read the novel itself seems strange, foreign, as if it were the fake and all the films and radio versions were the real thing. That cultural ever-presence distracts one from the source and obfuscates through layers of sanitizing changes the real Chandler and his clear observations. As I read him, scraping away layers of Hollywood, I’m always surprised at the society Chandler describes: its as petty and real as the one I know. There is no tabu that he is unwilling to acknowledge and it is that willingness to show every nasty detail that makes returning to his books so rewarding.
When thinking about Chandler, if you can separate yourself from the film and radio versions, the way he constructs the narrative voice is refreshingly clean, edited down to an almost editorially free mode of observation. That the observations are commentaries in of themselves goes without saying, but he always remains professionally detached. Perhaps not to the level of a Johnny Dollar, but its there. Of course, that detachment is suspect with women characters. Still even his romantic interests have the sense of the reportage about them. This might not seem so important, but when compared to his contemporaries, even some non crime writing, the clarity of his work, uncluttered by repeating the obvious via internal monologues. While I hate the “show don’t tell” prescription to writers, Chandler is one writer who knew how to follow it and it makes his work still stand.
Farewell, My Lovely opens with a clear eyed description of the changing racial make up of LA. Marlowe goes to a bar in central LA that had changed from white to black clientele. Like most things in these Chandler novels, Marlowe is in the area on a case and sees a tough enter the bar and decides to follow him in. It’s there that Chandler sketches the racial tensions of the changing city as the tough, Moose Malloy, cannot understand how the bar could change. That aggravation, first shown verbally through racial slurs, is ultimately expressed in a violence that leads to murder. When Marlowe is interviewed by the police, Chandler again shows the complete indifference of white society to the minorities. The cop in charge wants some glory from the case, but knows he’ll get nothing from it because no one cares. In those opening pages he sets up a great critique of LA, dark as it can be, and Marlowe is restrained in using racist language (he sticks with the then common negro).
Where his work breaks down, is the silly Indian character who seems like some stereotype right out of the movies. At one point in the book he is captured by a crime boss. One of his henchmen is an Indian who has a sideline as an Indian in western movies. Problem is, he talks as if he were on the plains of the old west circa 1880. Perhaps it was supposed to be a joke, but the only thing it is silly. Where he captured the corruption and racial tensions of LA in the bar scene, here he just imports mid century stereotypes for a little buffoonery that is not funny at all.
Still, it is the I don’t give a damn about you attitude that permeates the characters that makes the book so fresh. Nor is is a cartoonish look. Here I’m specifically thinking of the drunk woman he visits repeatedly. This isn’t a Hollywood drunk of so many noir films that has some semblance of control, but a total wastrel whose only goal in life is the next bottle. The busybody across the street from the woman is interesting, too, a nice depiction of the non criminal, but still having the Chandler eye for details.
Plenty of people have commented on the logic of his plots so I won’t bother here, and really I don’t care. They are good enough for me. It is the world he creates that interests me. But one thing that will strike anyone is that Marlowe is lucky and that several moments of the book hinge on fortunate accidents, especially when he is in a dark canyon and hit over the head and a young woman comes to his rescue. And the chances he takes, such as sneaking on to the gambling ship anchored off Bay City to confront the a crime boss. Occasionally, it is a little too much and were it not for the writing, perhaps it would be. (I can’t help but imagine Marlowe years latter suffering dementia for all the certain concussions he’s received.) Yet despite all that Farewell, My Lovely is an excellent piece of noir that rises above so much of the pulp material of the era (I’ve been reading some of it and have been quite disappointed. Just compare the first paragraph of Chandler’s Red Wind to anything else and you’ll see what I mean). One I could easily read again and hopefully, finally, get those voices out of my head.