© Ayo Onatade
When I am not blogging, I am generally reviewing books on crime fiction, interviewing authors or writing articles on the topic as well. Currently I am the Chair of the CWA Short Story Dagger Awards, a regular contributor for Crimespree Magazine and an occasional contributor to Mystery Journal International. When I am not writing about crime and mystery fiction, I am at the day job working with some very senior judges in the UK.
Funnily enough, my introduction to Raymond Chandler and my favourite crime novel – my one book to die for so to speak came about in a really round about manner. I had read all the classics – Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie et al and I chanced upon a Raymond Chandler novel. Now what a shock to the system that was! The first Chandler book I actually read was The Long Goodbye (1953).
Whilst The Long Goodbye is considered to be one of his best books and the one that has been lauded the most, it was not the one that dragged me hook, line and sinker into annals of noir. For me it was Farewell My Lovely (1940). Farewell My Lovely is actually an amalgamation of a number of previously published short stories. Namely, The Man Who Liked Dogs, Try The Girl and Mandarin’s Jade and this is why the plot is a bit discordant.
At the centre of Farewell My Lovely is the pursuit of absent love and alongside it is a plot that is driven by personal reasons being that of love and ambition along with regret for what has happened. Marlowe finds himself on the hunt for a woman. One woman in particular, the long lost love of one Moose Malloy. Malloy has just been released from jail after being framed and sent down for a crime. On his release, his first thought is to track down Velma his one-time fiancée. Marlowe attempts to not only find Velma but also discover who framed Malloy. He is also hired to help pay the ransom on a jade necklace. Thus having two parallel plots. As can be expected with Chandler, this is not a straightforward case. Marlowe is soon up to his neck in robberies, murders and there danger all around him.
For me there have always been two main things about Farewell My Lovely that have stood the test of time despite the fact that at times the plot leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly the characters – the colossal Moose Malloy, Nulty the detective who is incompetent and Randall who is his complete opposite and Grayle whose wife is at the centre of the whole sordid story (women also always end up being key to his stories). This is of course the case with Farewell My Lovely.
Secondly, Chandler’s Chandlerisms. His one and two liners crackle across the page and reading the snappy dialogue is like walking on crushed ice. No one does it better than Chandler. Philip Marlowe’s description on first seeing Moose alone is a classic –
“a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck” and he looked about inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”
Even when he is was talking about the most basic of things for example food he says it in such a way that makes you think -
“The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mailbag and it was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.”
Chandler in his famous essay The Art of Murder (1950) expressed the view that -
“Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic”
And that was his intention in all his novels. He was very disparaging about Golden Age classic novels and his dislike of them included what he felt was a lack of credible characters and narrative. He violated the conventions of the detective novel on a grand scale and by altering the rules of the genre he also changed reader’s fixed ideas which for me was not only the reason why my taste in crime fiction changed but also due to the fact that I found myself reading the type of novel that constantly never ceased to amaze me. In fact my first reading of the novel astounded me. I had been used to reading such authors as Agatha Christie et al and had not realised such novels existed. In Farewell My Lovely, the realism that Chandler felt was lacking in Golden Age novels was certainly to the fore. He uses dialect and racial insults that are commonplace to the mean streets. Even Philip Marlowe whom I am sure he was describing when he said –
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world….”
was that character who understood the mean streets and all it stood for. He was certainly under no illusions about what took place around him.
But why Farewell My Lovely specifically. I have always thought that there are some types of novels that lend themselves to including social commentary and noir and Farewell My Lovely is certainly one of them. There is a lot of social commentary taking place. The police corruption, the way in which he deals with the issue of race throughout the novel. The way in which they deal with the death of the owner of a nightclub (who is black) compared to the way in which they deal with the death of a white man (which is treated very differently).
Furthermore, the appeal for me is in his depiction of Los Angeles. He paints a stark portrayal of the seedier side of life. He also made a vocation of peeling the glistening parts off of L.A.’s image and showing it up warts and all. As a reader, you can easily imagine yourself being in the city.
Then there is his prose. Farewell My Lovely is narrated by Marlowe and in fact all Chandler’s novels featuring Marlowe are written as first person a narrative, which makes it difficult for things to be left out. His dialogue is sharp and commanding and for me, his writing and work have always been expressive.
Chandler’s aim was always to tell a story that would make you keep on turning the page and in my opinion; he did so with Farewell My Lovely. For me Farewell My Lovely is not only a page-turner but also his best book. Furthermore, everything is not tied up neatly in a bow at the end.
Suffice to say Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely led me to other noir writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Ross Macdonald and thus my fate was sealed. Now whilst my taste for crime fiction has always been eclectic my heart belongs to noir and Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely in particular. . Farewell My Lovely did not make me a crime fiction fan (The Mysterious Affair At Styles did that) but it did change not only my life but also my reading tastes and it will always remain that one book that I would say “here! Why don’t you try this!”.