I’ve recently subscribed to two book boxes, one of which sends very new books (like the one I reviewed here), but the other, Bookishly, sends an older, used, somewhat classic book every month, along with some tea and other small goodies, like a notecard or notebook. This one comes from England, and I have quite enjoyed getting some of the very classic Penguin editions that are different from what we have here stateside.
Anyway, one of the books I got was Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. When I realized that it was the second book in a mystery series staring a private detective named Phillip Marlowe, one of the founders of the ‘hard-boiled detective’ genre, I decided to start with book one, The Big Sleep.
I genuinely had no idea what to expect, but was immediately captivated by Marlowe, who is not only the main character but also the narrator.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaven and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
This book was originally published in 1939, and I can see it offending some, as it contains much of the casual prejudices and racism of the day. (And honestly, some of the negative reviews on Goodreads had my eyes rolling practically out of my head… why do people read books published almost 80 years ago and then get offended that the people in them have a completely different worldview?! How ignorant do you have to be to not expect that…???) But at the same time, its very casualness of those prejudices is incredibly revealing of its time, and an intriguing reminder of how times have changed. For instance, I don’t think anyone could get away with writing anything like this –
“Don’t kid me, son. The fag gave you one. You’ve got a nice clean manly little room in there. He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors. He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men. Think I can’t figure people like you out?” … he swung on me … it caught me flush on the chin. I backstepped enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of punch. It was meant to be a heard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.
But it’s not really an overwhelming bit of the story, and the majority of Marlowe’s narration is genuinely hilarious and Chandler’s knack for writing conversation is brilliant; I found myself snorting with laughter on more than one occasion over bits like this –
Her hot black eyes looked mad. “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”
“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. “I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind that you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”
This wasn’t a story full of action. Marlowe meanders about making his own observations and doing his own thing, but we’re privy to pretty much everything he knows and does. Chandler isn’t afraid to kill people off, and there are multiple corpses throughout, but nothing gory and no one dies that you’re particularly sad to see go.
While the old-fashioned prejudices may have been rather offensive, the old-fashioned morals aren’t, and I loved how the language in this book never went stronger than a ‘damn,’ and how a few criminals were running a pornography business, which seemed to genuinely disgust the majority of the characters. I also really liked the Marlowe didn’t fall into bed with any of the women about – he’s way too crafty to fall for their lures, and it says a lot about his overall character, which is actually rather philosophical and introspective, despite his rough-and-ready exterior.
At one point, Marlowe has apprehended a possible bad guy. When he confronts the kid, the kid responds with “Go _____ yourself” – blank included in the original text. And that seems to be this kid’s default response to everything, although Chandler manages to mix it up quite a bit with things like, “He spoke three words to me and kept on driving,” or “the kid shrugged and said his three favorite words.”
Despite Marlowe’s hard image, I appreciated that he was genuinely disturbed by the easy murder of one of the characters, even if that character was a bit of a skunk. There is so much drinking and smoking in this book that I was cracking up – for instance, I’m not sure if even the leaders of criminal rings these days have their own monogrammed cigarettes.
While I wasn’t racing to the ending in desperate fear of Marlowe’s life, I still really wanted to see how things were going to unwind, and with sentences like, “She’d make a jazzy weekend, but she’d be wearing for a steady diet,” luring me along, I found myself thoroughly immersed every time I picked up the book.
I’m looking forward to continuing Marlowe’s acquaintance. There are only eight books total, plus a ninth that Chandler had partially written at the time of his death and was later finished by another author. The Big Sleep was an easy 3.5/5, and a really fun start to a series.