Chandler, Raymond (1940/1992). Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Vintage/Random.
“Chandleresque” is a writing style that cannot be matched, though many have tried, even me. Tough guy PI, Philip Marlowe, is the definition of hard-boiled. He fears nothing, can take a beating, bumps and stumbles his way through cases, and somehow manages to solve them. What makes him entertaining are his outrageous similes and comparisons bordering on poetry.
“A man…was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.”
“A large, thick-necked Negro was leaning against the end of the bar with pink garters on his shirt sleeves and pink and white suspenders crossing his broad back. He had bouncer written all over him.”
“[She] was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”
“At the top of [the driveway] stood an eyrie, an eagle’s nest, an angular building of stucco and glass brick, raw and modernistic and yet not ugly and altogether a swell place for a psychic consultant to hang out his shingle. Nobody would be able to hear any screams.”
The descriptions are visual, usually humorous, and often poetic. Marlowe’s worldview is the main attraction in this novel, although his smart-alecky comments do wear thin after a while. He has virtually no interior, and the reader only mildly cares about him and his adventures, which seem arbitrary, so there simply is no great character arc and nothing really about Marlowe illuminates the human condition. It’s a “fun” novel, a stylistic tour de force. It counts as literature only because it defined the hard-boiled genre.
The plot goes this way and that, with more characters than you can keep track of. A dead body always has a matchbook in the pocket with the name of a bar and you know Marlowe will go to that bar and beat somebody up, or get beat up, or meet a sizzling dame who knows something. In fact the plot is so convoluted, you can’t really follow it, though it seems to all come together in the end. Chandler wrote the novel by cementing together a set of his short stories, and that could explain the random feeling of the story line’s writhing.
But the plot is not the point. The fun is the atmosphere of 1940’s Los Angeles and its dark, seamy underside, and the lowlife characters, and above all the voice of Philip Marlowe, who among PI’s, stands out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.