Friday, May 15, 2009

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

That's not what the cover of the edition I read looked like, but I am a sucker for old editions of classic books, so this is the one I'm going with.

I've mentioned before I'm a mystery-detective fiction fan, so it's not surprise that I've taken to the Chandler I've read and watched like a duck to water. So if this review ends up gushing and glowing, you've been warned.

Another Phillip Marlowe story, this one involves Marlowe being asked to discreetly investigate a rich man's wife and quickly spirals into a complicated plot involving multiple homicides, brushes with police (both honest and otherwise), fast cars and fast action. Before Marlowe knows it, he's up to his neck in a plot so convoluted only a writer in the pre-workshop era could have pulled it off.

And that's just the way Marlowe (and I) like it.

I find writing about mysteries just a bit tricky because I don't want to give away any of the multiple twists and turns Chandler provides the reader as Marlowe gets deeper and deeper into trouble, trying at times to either protect or implement his client in the proceedings. The lies pile up one after the other, as Marlowe feels no need to play straight with anyone he doesn't trust--and sometimes, those he does.

For a modern reader, there's a definite sense of confusion at times, especially towards the end when Chandler must wrap up all his loose ends in a bundle that only ties together neatly if you don't think about it too hard and don't worry about "fair play"--the practice of giving the reader everything he or she needs to solve the crime. I have a fairly high tolerance for twists and turns in a story, but even I have a few moments where I wanted to just ask Chandler to end the story before Charles Lindbergh showed up asking for his baby.

But let's face it, you're not reading a Marlowe story for the plot, just like you're not watching Monk because it challenges the brain. You're here because Marlowe is one hell of a character, and Chandler's no-nonsense, amazingly scripted internal monologue of perpetual description is always there to put a smile on your face.

Some examples, drawn randomly:

"I got my knees under me and stayed on all fours for awhile, like a dog who can't finish his dinner, but hates to leave it."

"The hop was tall and thin and yellow and not young and as cool as a slice of chicken in aspic."

"In a little while it was dark enough and he sang and went away into the invisible depths of sky. I snapped my cigarette into the motionless water a few feet away and climbed back into the car and started back in the direction of Little Fawn Lake."

"My hand went out for it, stiff as an eggshell, almost as brittle."

"A wizened waiter with evil eyes and a face like a gnawed bone put a napkin with a printed peacock on it down on the table in front of me and gave me a Bacardi cocktail."

I think you get the idea.

There are some problems, of course, with the style. Marlowe, while taking his lumps early and often, seems like a super hero at times in his ability to get out of anything--eventually. There's also the problem of women in pulp works, especially of this nature. There's not a good dame in the bunch here and they often fold like water at Marlowe's toughness. I understand this as part of the genre and acknowledge (but not endorse) it, the same as I do when an otherwise good writer throws racial stereotypes at me. If you are particularly sensitive to those types of issues in fiction, you're better off staying away on this one.

Whether or not you're interested in the story depends entirely on how much you like Chandler's writing. If you get hooked into the constant patter of Marlowe and his jaundiced view of humanity--he didn't invent the phrase "I'm only in it for the money" but he might as well have--you'll love this book no matter how implausible the story gets. (I think where Marlowe tries to escape a trap set for him by hanging outside the window of a seedy hotel is probably the best example of this in "Lake.")

If on the other hand, you find the tone annoying--Chandler's writing style is almost always that of conversation without another party getting a chance to interrupt--or think those quotes above are some of the worst writing you've ever seen, then you're not going to like this at all. Chandler is definitely one of those writers you either enjoy or hate.

I of course fall into the former category, finding interesting stylings better reads than the polished work that's been edited to death in a writing workshop. If you're looking for a classic of the 1940s, this is definitely the book for you.

No comments:

Post a Comment