The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk (pg. 19, Penguin Books)
Ah, how I love Raymond Chandler and his hard-boiled private investigator, Philip Marlowe. In my other life, I would be Vivian from The Big Sleep, but that’s another book…
In Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s second novel, the action opens with Marlowe investigating a run-of-the-mill missing-person’s case. During his pursuit, Marlowe stumbles upon something far more interesting altogether. He encounters Moose Molloy, a big bruiser just out of jail and on the lookout for his former love, Velma. The scene is Florian’s, a ‘dine and dice emporium’, a place where Velma worked as a singer at the time of Moose’s conviction some eight years ago. Before he knows it, Marlowe is right in the thick of it; Moose, who doesn’t seem to know his own strength, ends up breaking the bar manager’s neck and heads off with a gun leaving Marlowe to get drawn into the investigation.
One of the things I love about Chandler is his brilliant knack for describing scenes in such a way that we, as readers, feel we’re right there with the characters themselves. Here’s Marlowe as he meets the cop in charge of this case:
A man named Nulty got the case, a lean-jawed sourpuss with long yellow hands which he kept folded over his kneecaps most of the time he talked to me. He was a detective-lieutenant attached to the 77th Street Division and we talked in a bare room with two small desks against opposite walls and room to move between them, if two people didn’t try it at once. Dirty brown linoleum covered the floor and the smell of old cigar butts hung in the air. Nulty’s shirt was frayed and his coat sleeves had been turned in at the cuffs. He looked poor enough to be honest, but he didn’t look like a man who could deal with Moose Molloy.
He lit half of a cigar and threw the match on the floor, where a lot of company was waiting for it. (pg. 15)
Marlowe quickly discovers that Florian’s used to be owned by a guy named Mike Florian, now deceased but survived by his widow, Jesse. And when Marlowe pays Mrs Florian a visit, she appears to have something to hide…
‘Well, what do I do – date her up?’ Nulty asked.
‘I did it for you. I took in a pint of bourbon with me. She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she had washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.’
‘Skip the wisecracks,’ Nulty said.
‘I asked Mrs Florian about Velma. You remember, Mr Nulty, the redhead named Velma that Moose Molloy was looking for? I’m not tiring you, am I, Mr Nulty?’
‘What you sore about?’
‘You wouldn’t understand. Mrs Florian said she didn’t remember Velma. Her home is very shabby except for a new radio worth seventy or eighty dollars.’
‘You ain’t told me why that’s something I should start screaming about.’
‘Mrs Florian – Jesse to me – said her husband left her nothing but his old clothes and a bunch of stills of the gang who worked at his joint from time to time. I plied her with liquor and she is a girl who will take a drink if she had to knock you down to get to the bottle. After the third or fourth she went into her modest bedroom and threw things around and dug the bunch of stills out of the bottom of an old trunk. But I was watching her without her knowing it and she slipped one out of the packet and hid it. So after a while I snuck in there and grabbed it.’
I reached into my pocket and laid the Pierrot girl on his desk. He lifted it and stared at it and his lips quirked at the corners. (pg 37-38)
Having read a few of Chandler’s books, I’m starting to admire this author more for his writing than his storylines. Farewell, My Lovely is all about sharp dialogue, attitude and mood. The plot itself is important of course, and this one has twists and turns aplenty, but the storyline almost seems secondary to those other aspects. The narrative is peppered with Marlowe’s wisecracking quips and one-liners (which just cry out to be quoted) and Chandler’s use of metaphor and simile is quite something:
A bogus heartiness, as weak as a Chinaman’s tea, moved into her face and voice. (pg. 26)
Her eyes stayed on the bottle. Suspicion fought with thirst, and thirst was winning. It always does. (pg.28)
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (pg. 97)
Alongside the search for Moose and Velma, Chandler introduces another stand to narrative as Marlowe picks up a job accompanying a man aiming to buy back a stolen necklace. At first the two cases appear unconnected, but Marlowe sniffs out a link, and our down-at-heel detective gets sucked into a web of corruption and power that has infected the affluent classes. Marlowe works on hunches, gets into all manner of scrapes, but we seem to know he’ll make it through somehow.
Farewell, My Lovely is a great noir – perhaps not quite up there with The Big Sleep, but it’s a downright enjoyable read all the same. Highly recommended.
Farewell, My Lovely is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy.