4 out of 5
A confluence of certain comic books by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker and the movie Brick opened my media tastebuds up to the world of pulp and crime fiction. I’d heard names like Raymond Chandler, of course, and in my snobbish days, probably would’ve had some opinion on classics like The Big Sleep – despite not having read them (or even seen their film adaptations) – but my book tastes leading up to this tended to lean toward 70s fantasists like Joseph Heller, or cyberpunk evolvees like Neal Stephenson. Getting back in to comics in the early 00s endeared me to a certain pompish presentation; I started falling away from superheroes toward indies; I started reading Greg Rucka’s novels and espionage comics. And then Brick spoke in a language I’d heard before but never actually heard, co-opting 30s gangster slang and a kidnapping / drug plot straight from a pulp for a high school drama. I thought it was brilliant, and I wanted to know more about that world.
And so I started exploring. But because I’m an idiot, when I go exploring genres (music, film, books), I always forget to start from the top and I end up going backwards. A literal decade and more after-the-fact, I’d finally started to pick up some Chandler books, which unfortunately sat ‘neath an already large queue of to-be-reads. I’ve read a fair amount of the genre between then and now, when I’m finally finally reading Farewell, My Lovely – Chandler’s second Philip Marlowe book – but upon cracking the cover, I was instantly reminded of the spell Rian Johnson’s slang-slinging movie had cast upon me: I’d never read a narrative that sounded quite like this, despite Chandler undoubtedly influencing a huge percentage of the books I’d sampled in the intervening years. The author has a unique blend of the crackling P.I. shop talk and the literary; the whip-smart and the sarcastic; flip-flopping between really surprisingly surreal descriptions of Marlowe’s waking up from alcohol- or drug- or sapped-over-the-head-blackouts and intensely visual metaphors to capture ambience and characters in a snap, and then dry, fact-of-the-matter facts, which sneakily form the backbone of Lovely’s mystery.
Or mysteries, as this was another instance of Chandler snapping several short stories together into a longer tale – as was his habit – and this is only the real issue with the book. It flows magnificently, despite the patchwork background, but as we get deeper into events, crossing from a walking tank of a man – Moose Malloy – hunting for his lost love Velma, to Marlowe playing bodyguard during a money-for-jewels exchange, to crooked cops protecting faux mind-readers and doctors, to a confrontation on the sea – there are a couple of exposition dumps that recap things and remind the reader that how we got to Z from A is a little murky. Chandler achieves his goal of entertainment uber alles; however, I definitely found myself questioning our sudden velocity down one particular avenue when I was getting revved up by reporterly dames and dialogue repartee with stoic tuffs, only to have a sudden scene and direction change… and then there’d be a character to helpfully clarify why we are where we are.
This also leads in to the unavoidable application of a modern lens upon older texts: racism and sexism applies, although it comes from odd directions. The opening bit of our story takes place in black-run bars and hotels, and common terms of the era are used, and dialogue is given the ol’ colloquial treatment, but at the same time, these characters are treated as fleshed out and human as any of the other characters. Later, Chandler cannot shut up about the odor of a particular Indian character, but also makes clear to note that it’s not a “dirty” smell, but rather an Earthy one, for whatever that’s worth. Our ladies fall into one of three buckets – fatale, snoop, or lout – but, again, there’s an interesting bit of humanity behind each, moreso than I’d say I often find in pulp books. It’s an interesting mix of forward-thinking and dated thinking, and I’ll be interested to read more Chandler to see how that develops.
Despite these non-timeless elements, Farewell, My Lovely is an excellent example of the timelessness of text, in general. I can imagine someone mimicking these same questionable sensibilities in an attempt to mimic the era, and meanwhile, the plot and characters – the core of the story – never age. I know the pulp moves by now, and Chandler still caught me out. Part of that is due to Lovely’s construction from former stories, but Chandler still put in effort to make sure things ultimately stitch together very satisfyingly, and for the more glaring seams in the setup, he’s got some perfect moments – exciting, funny, intriguing – that quickly make you overlook such gaps.