Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Penguin no. 867: The Lady in the Lake
by Raymond Chandler

     'I've never liked this scene,' I said. 'Detective confronts murderer. Murderer produces gun, points same at detective. Murderer tells detective the whole sad story, with the idea of shooting him at the end of it. Thus wasting a lot of valuable time, even if in the end murderer did shoot detective. Only murderer never does. Something always happens to prevent it. The gods don't like this scene either. They always manage to spoil it.'
     'But this time,' she said softly and got up and moved towards me softly across the carpet, 'suppose we make it a little different. Suppose I don't tell you anything and nothing happens and I do shoot you?'
     'I still wouldn't like the scene,' I said.


It is well known that Chandler wrote crime fiction within the tradition of the American hardboiled school, a style popularised by magazines such as Black Mask. And his thoughts on the alternative English murder-in-a-country-home approach  are known because he discussed them in his 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder. He criticised the artificial quality of this alternative approach, particularly the way in which it didn't factor in predictable behaviour. No thought was given to consequences likely to follow from certain events, with crime and murder treated as a game, and its solving as an intellectual exercise. You can believe in dilettante dons as amateur sleuths if you ignore the desperation of the murderer, his instinct for self preservation, and the violence that can be a possible result.  Chandler chose a different approach, offering a sleuth conscious of the danger, and tough and fearless in its contemplation . The Lady in the Lake seems designed to never let you forget that the world can be an ugly place, and murder is always a sordid business.

The story is told by Philip Marlowe, a private investigator from L.A. whose defining characteristic seems to be his sense of honour: he is someone who can be hired, but not bought. However, his conception of honour is a personal one, with his actions and decisions guided by a code that he has established for himself. In his world there seems no other way to derive it. There are repeated reminders that figures of authority are not necessarily to be trusted, and that all power carries with it the potential for corruption. And so there are police officers who frame innocent people to protect their friends and cover up their mistakes, doctors who act to promote and encourage disease rather than to cure it, and elected officials who condition their choices on publicity and how it will affect their chances of re-election.

Marlowe is hired by the wealthy businessman Derace Kingsley to track down his missing wife Crystal, who disappeared a month earlier from their cabin at Little Fawn Lake in the mountains outside Los Angeles. Even Kingsley acts primarily from self-interest - no one in this story other than Marlowe seems reliably honest. He doesn't care where she is or what she is doing, but he is a businessman and he cares about the opinions of his shareholders: he wants to ensure that there will be no scandal. He has received a telegram stating that she was heading to Mexico to secure a divorce and to marry her boyfriend Chris Lavery. But Lavery is yet another dissolute character, and not really the marrying type. He is something of a gigolo, with an eye for wealthy women, and he denies any current involvement with, or knowledge of, Crystal.

It is a complicated plot with Marlowe finding two bodies, and contemplating three murders and two missing women before he finds the answer to Crystal's disappearance. His methods of investigation are traditional: he follows leads, talks to people, and relies on his instinct for what feels right and what is probable. Unlike other fictional sleuths who seem to have a kind of sixth sense guiding their endeavours, his guide seems to be his curiosity, and he follows up everything, without any knowledge of whether it is relevant to his case or not, and in the process he makes mistakes, and underestimates dangers.

Marlowe notices the detail in all he observes, but this detail is almost always negative, describing how things don't quite meet some standard. It builds and reinforces this sense of his environment as sordid and dissolute. The plot was interesting and involved, but it was the concept which most held my attention, with Chandler offering this world in which people are assumed to act at their worst, and there seems only this single man of character, with his detachment inseparable from his integrity.

3 comments:

  1. Raymond Chandler is an author I'm always meaning to read and never seem to get around to. I'll look next time I'm in the library and see if there's anything by him. I've never heard of the Lady in the Lake - it sounds good.

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  2. Nice blog. Well done. I enjoyed it.

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  3. Terrific review. LADY IN THE LAKE is my second favorite Raymond Chandler book (alongside FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and THE HIGH WINDOW). The film isn't bad either.

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