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Farewell, My Lovely

Raymond Chandler is fast on his way to my short list of writers. I love his clipped style and imagery. The metaphors are fantastic. Lines like, “My voice sounded like somebody tearing slats off a chicken coop.” He and Dashiell Hammett invented a truly American, truly new style. I’m taking it at face value that Hammett was involved: I own, but haven’t read, The Maltese Falcon. It’s on the list.

Farewell, My Lovely isn’t quite as playful as The Big Sleep, despite the addition of a lounge singer. At times, Farewell feels much more like a James Bond movie—like when Marlowe’s sneaking around the docks and when he infiltrates the boat—if Bond were worn to a nub by the unstoppable, churning grind of the cosmos. Marlowe has more baggage than in the previous book; his witty remarks seem forced and sometimes he doesn’t have the energy to make them at all. He cries, or almost cries; he’s slower, less of a fix-all hero. He gets hurt.

Chandler uses colorful metaphors less in Farewell, My Lovely: he tells it straighter. It’s as if he’s lost some measure of levity, and now he’s telling it as it is, no frills or embellishments. The quote on the back of the book, from George V. Higgins (whom I do not know), reads,

Chandler did not write about crime, or detection—as he insisted he did not. He wrote about the corruption of the human spirit, using Philip Marlowe as his disapproving angel, and he knew about it, down to the marrow.

Higgins is right. Chandler saw to the heart of people; that was his true subject. The heart of people often produces crime, but that’s a side effect, not his central concern.

I’ve never read much crime fiction, so I can’t say whether this fits the mold of mystery or not. I foresaw certain plot twists, and took some pleasure from that, but the language was the real draw for me. Chandler’s economical use of words and his willingness to have a distinctive style make me think of how I can cultivate my own style without the style superseding content. Strunk & White is good, but not the end of the road.

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