Sunday, August 16, 2009

Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake

A wealthy businessman hires Private Investigator Philip Marlow to find a missing wife, suspected of eloping with a bit-part film actor. The trail leads to seedy hotels and a remote lake with a bloated body. There's more than one femme fatale in the convoluted plot, and Marlowe is often on wrong end of a gun barrel or has his head in the way of a blackjack. So far so 'Chandleresque'. Given his reputation, it comes as a surprise to learn that Chandler, like Jane Austen, wrote only six novels.

His writing style made his work particularly suitable for adapting to the 'film noir' genre popular in US cinemas of the 40s and early 50s. When much younger I attended an 'all-night Humphrey Bogart ' programme at the NFT - ironically enough, sleeping through the Chandler-based The Big Sleep, in which Bogart made the perfect Marlowe. At a later date, though , I was wide awake to watch Robert Mitchum as the hardboiled detective hero, typically wreathed in cigarette smoke, in Farewell, My Lovely.

Chandler was born and spent his adulthood in America, where his stories are set, but he was educated at Dulwich College, credited with encouraging literary talents such as P. G. Wodehouse.

It seems to me Chandler's personal history and experiences- he came to England aged twelve after his parents divorced - played a part in creating the character of Marlowe, a troubled outsider in a society where infidelity and greed characterise the well-to-do.

It's his style, though, that makes the books so readable -his way of creating atmosphere by describing the essentials, the character-revealing dialogue and the telling imagery. For instance, Marlowe waits in an outer office to see his client as:

'The minutes went by on tip-toe, with their fingers to their lips'

or builds up to a startling revelation, as when he is disturbed by a woman when searching a house:

'She saw me and didn't stop or change expression in the slightest degree. She came slowly on into the room, holding her right hand away from her body. Her left hand wore the brown glove I had seen on the railing. The right-hand glove that matched it was wrapped around the butt of a small automatic.'

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