A year ago I picked up Raymond Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake (1944) from Undercover Books in Norwich – aptly, as that bookseller’s logo shows the silhouette of a trenchcoated private eye. I’ve returned to the novel recently and am halfway through it – to be precise, at the end of Chapter 17.
Reading this novel makes me think either: a) I wish I had spent more of my life reading Raymond Chandler, or b) I should spend the rest of my life reading Raymond Chandler. But he only published a handful of novels, so when I finish with those I’ll need to do more rereading. The stories are probably worthwhile also. I think not all of them are about Philip Marlowe, as the novels are. Here are some things I love about this novel.
1. Detection and the sense of the unknown. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out – and as this is a detective novel, it matters how it turns out. It won’t just be a matter of a change of heart or people’s relations or perceptions shifting, it will be about the revelation of specific, decisive things that have happened that I, the reader, don’t know yet. I have a, let’s say ‘epistemological intrigue’ about this book; I want to know (facts, connections) but I also want not to know too much because I want it to go on and on. I don’t want to guess the answers too early and spoil it. Normally that wouldn’t be a risk for me.
I note here the dual narrative frame of the detective story: a) the story of what happened, that is, roughly, ‘the crime’, which we don’t know at all at the outset; we will only learn of it as we go along and some of it may be unknown till a few pages from the end; b) the story of the process of detection. The first story involves criminals, murderers, victims; only the second centres on Marlowe, and some of the same people (as ‘suspects’ and so on) playing a different role and responding to his inquiries. It is an odd fact that the first story (a) is so compelling and it seems to be what I am ultimately reading to find out, yet it is also Marlowe who is more compelling than anyone, and he only occupies the second story (b). There is a temptation (as in for instance Charles J. Rzepka’s engaging book Detective Fiction) to make some kind of ontological or metaphysical case about the distinctiveness of the detective story in this regard. But as it is basically a ‘realistic’ story (it needs to be: if the supernatural became involved then the ‘contract with the reader’ about plausibility, which allows us in principle to try to solve the crime, would be broken), I think it can only be a matter of degree. I think that detective stories must probably belong in essentially the same universe as other realist narratives, in many of which, after all, there is a distinction between ‘those interesting events that have already happened’ and ‘how we are learning about those events now, from a later point in time’.
2. The stuff I’ve just talked about sounds like what Rzepka calls ‘the puzzle element’ that is distinctive to detective fiction (as against for instance crime fiction at large or other kinds of thriller). There seems to be a standard (as in all-too-standard) historical narrative that says that puzzles belonged to a genteel English mode (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers) which was displaced by a hard-boiled age (Dashiell Hammett at Black Mask magazine): with violence, menace, jeopardy replacing puzzle-solving. Rzepka fairly points out that puzzle-solving, or let’s just say thinking about the crime and trying to work out who did it and what happened, remains very important in good hard-boiled writing. I find this true of Chandler, and it seems to consort better with another view of Chandler – that his plots are notoriously byzantine. If they didn’t include or prompt any puzzling, surely they wouldn’t be?
Yet it’s true that Chandler brings other pleasures. Here is one: the sense of place. Every time in this novel Marlowe visits any place, it is described in detail. There is a sense of familiarity on his part about the terms of reference; he knows the genre of place he is dealing with, and the kinds of detail it is liable to include. Some of the description is bluntly factual – but there is sometimes so much of it. The question arises: is something in this passage going to be important? I’d better quote a couple of examples. Sherriff Jim Patton gets ready to drive:
He got into a car which had a siren on it, two red spotlights, two fog-lights, a red and white fire plate, a new air-raid horn on top, three axes, two heavy coils of rope and a fire-extinguisher in the back seat, extra petrol and oil and water-cans in a frame on the running-board, an extra spare tyre roped to the one on the rack, the stuffing coming out of the upholstery in dingy wads, and half an inch of dust over what was left of the paint. (51)
So far (60 pages on), I don’t think that any of these objects have proved significant. I doubt that any of them will. Chandler is also painstaking with interiors – here is the inside of playboy Chris Lavery’s home:
The lower hall had a door at each end and two in the middle side by side. One of these was a linen closet and the other was locked. I went along to the end and looked in at a spare bedroom with drawn blinds and no sign of being used. I went back to the other end of the hall and stepped into a second bedroom with a wide bed, a café-au-lait rug, angular furniture in light wood, a box mirror over the dressing-table and a long fluorescent lamp over the mirror. In the corner a crystal greyhound stood on a mirror-top table and beside him a crystal box with cigarettes in it. (102-3)
Any more significance here? Well, the broad context is that Marlowe is going to find a body in the house, so it seems proper to establish the setting fully – perhaps in a kind of narrative respect for the importance of the forthcoming discovery, with a sense that that discovery will prompt and require reflection, and such reflection will want to feel that it had any possible relevant facts at its disposal. That’s what Marlowe would feel himself. To a large extent, Chandler’s extensive descriptions of place and scene simply reflect that fact that registering the detail of places and scenes is a big part of his narrator’s job. In this instance, the locked door is the one with the body behind it – so that briefest part of this paragraph will turn out to be the most pregnantly ominous. One more thing: the woman Marlowe is looking for, who he’ll have reason to believe stayed here last night, is called ‘Crystal’. Chandler must have been aware that the objects he mentions here echo her name, though I doubt that any more will be said of that.
Some of the scene-setting is not so bluntly factual, but carries more personality. Marlowe drives up into the hills, to San Bernardino which ‘baked and shimmered in the afternoon heat’ (32) (another precursor to the journey to the relatively discrete zone of San Narciso in The Crying of Lot 49 twenty years later), then on to the Puma Lake Dam with armed guards which are evidently an effect of the ongoing world war, and further on again in search of Little Fawn Lake. The sheer extent of Chandler’s description of this journey is striking. He could have accomplished it much faster, in textual terms. Instead he registers every turn of the Chrysler and shift in atmosphere. So:
The road skimmed along a high granite outcrop and dropped to meadows of coarse grass in which grew what was left of the wild irises and white and purple lupin and bugle flowers and columbine and pennyroyal and desert paint brush. Tall yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky. The road dropped again to lake level and the landscape began to be full of girls in gaudy slacks and snoods and peasant handkerchiefs and rat rolls and fat-soled sandals and fat white thighs. (33)
I think an LRB reviewer in the last few years pointed out the bizarreness of Philip Marlowe knowing all those flowers, even supposing that he could even see them while speeding by in his car. It’s a curious moment where Chandler’s relatively realistic aesthetic of an unusually observant narrator becomes unrealistic by straying into different territory. But I don’t imagine that Chandler was bothered about that. I get the sense that he wanted to be as aesthetic as he could, while keeping his story working, and he wasn’t going to remove those flowers for anyone. The line that follows, while still in the realm of the natural world – ‘Tall yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky’ – is more properly elegant, fine writing. Then the line after that is sardonic. I was surprised by the ‘snoods’, which I only heard about footballers wearing a few years ago.
There are dozens more paragraphs which describe place in fine detail. In fact even the first paragraph of the book is an example:
The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.
I’m now reading that for the third time, and find it so full of interest. There is the question of whom Chandler (through Marlowe) is talking to: whether he posits a readership who really know Los Angeles well enough to register these co-ordinates or, much more likely I think, whether he is aiming at a sense of local knowledge to impress us, the thousands who don’t know the place. There is the way that the meaning and value attached to a place’s details are registered through an observer, the ‘hatless pale man’ (hatless in that all the other men are wearing hats – homburgs, fedoras, caps and so on?). There is the reference to ‘government’ which I loosely associated with the Fredric Jameson reading of Chandler but now I suddenly realize is much more specific: it’s about the war, in which government can requisition such materials. (Later: ‘They had finished laying rose-coloured concrete where the rubber sidewalk had been’ .)
3. So: mystery and description; detection and location. My third factor can be comedy. This novel makes me laugh so much. This is almost all about Marlowe: sometimes the way he describes others (which is sometimes consciously comic), sometimes the deliberately comic and snappy things he says to them, sometimes again just the pleasure of watching his routine, his way of reacting and behaving. He walks round the lake with the erratically alcoholic Bill Chess, who keeps breaking into argument then calming down: ‘We started off side by side, as friendly as puppies again. It would probably last all of fifty yards’ (44). He talks to Sherriff Patton about the case, outdoing him with his power of extrapolation; Patton comments: ‘Don’t tell me, son […] Let me guess all for myself that you got a brand-new idea about it’. Having unloaded his latest thoughts, Marlowe adds: ‘When you get tired of it, let me know. I’ll have something else’ (82-3). I love the sense here of Marlowe’s intellectual industry, his restless intelligence and desire to form and test theories – one fact about him that gets relatively underplayed and overlooked. And I love the number of times his response to a statement from another character is ‘I didn’t say anything’. There is a sense that he has learned that this silence can be a powerful strategic substitute for speech.
So much more in this book is fascinating and tremendously enjoyable. But the other thing I wanted to do in this post was to play out the implied readerly role and try to guess something about the crime, in a necessarily naive way.
Here is the one strong hunch I have, halfway through the book. The lady in the lake, discovered at the end of Chapter 6 (48), is not Muriel Chess (aka Mildred Haviland) as is suspected. It is Crystal Kingsley, the wife Marlowe is initially hired to find. Why do I suspect this? Apart from the general imperative for a detective story to contain twists and deceits, it’s because a) before the body is found, their relatively similar appearances are remarked on by Muriel’s own husband Bill, who says of Crystal ‘She’s a blonde like Muriel, same size and weight, same type, almost the same colour eyes’ (39). b) Further play is made on the relative interchangeability of pretty blondes – for instance by the bellhop Marlowe questions (in an odd scene whose oddness is quite typical of Chandler: it carries a faint sense of homoeroticism or sems an encounter which, angled slightly differently, could be a gay pick-up): ‘These small blondes are so much of a pattern that a change of clothes or light or make-up makes them all alike or all different’ (88). The last twitch of thought here – that small changes can make them not just ‘all alike’ but also ‘all different’ – is a terrific piece of gratuitous stimulation. But the main assertion, that one little blonde looks much like another, seems to me an almost clunking clue by Chandler’s standards: a warning to the reader to wonder if these two blondes have changed places. c) And this would in turn produce a kind of aesthetic pattern, of symmetry, reflection, inversion, that I can imagine Chandler might want to evoke, to give his story an additional sense of shape. The territory here would be not so far from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. d) A more mundane rationale, but also noticeable in the text if you’re following the hunch: it’s emphasized that the body in the lake isn’t that identifiable. The corpse’s face is ‘[a] swollen pulpy grey white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth’ (48). Bill Chess instantly identifies it as Muriel, and we’d think he would know. But why should he, given the state of the body? I think this is a mis-identification, probably an honest one (I think that Chess may have done something bad, but not killed this woman), which crucially throws the reader off the possibility that it’s Crystal who has drowned. It’s very noticeable that a police detective later tells Marlowe that ‘a technical man’ is trying to identify the body by its fingerprints, and the specific technique for this is described (92). It seems to be setting us up carefully for the revelation of who the body is – which in this case would be a scientific, ‘forensic‘ revelation, much less common in Chandler than in the last twenty years of television (and I imagine literary) detectives.
If that one hunch is right, what follows? The woman who was at the San Bernardino hotel with Chris Lavery was Muriel Chess, aka Mildred Haviland. Someone has been looking for ms Haviland: a fake cop calling himself De Soto who I suspect is the same cop who accosted Marlowe in Bay City early on. He gave his name as ‘Degarmo, detective-lieutenant’, and seemed a real enough cop to have ‘a blue-and-gold police badge’ (29). (I think I recall that Farewell, My Lovely shows Bay City police to be quite a corrupt body.) Degarmo was protecting Dr Albert Almore, who lives opposite Lavery. I doubt that that shared location is an accident. I’d be fairly sure that Dr Almore is the ‘Al’ who gave ‘Mildred’ a little engraved gold heart on June 28th 1938 (81), which has been cut off an anklet and left in a sugar bowl in Bill Chess’s kitchen – presumably by Muriel Chess. It seems that Mildred Haviland has changed her name in something of the way that Velma Valento has changed her name to Helen Grayle in Farewell, My Lovely. Albert Almore (a name maybe slightly playing on amour) would then be the Moose Malloy figure: the besotted and abandoned male who is pursuing his former lover into her new identity. The sense of repetition from one novel to another would be leavened by the fact that Almore is otherwise so unlike Malloy (perhaps indeed delegating something of the Malloy role to big Degarmo).
The one thing I’m certain of is that Dr Almore will figure much more significantly in the second half of the novel, perhaps becoming the most significant mover behind whatever has happened. We know that Marlowe’s client, Derace Kingsley, knows him; he says that Crystal Kingsley was treated by him, and adds that Almore’s wife committed suicide some time ago (31). This detail is almost gratuitously tantalizing, in a story where there is a question over whether the body in the lake is a suicide. Not that they can be the same body, but that the story of a death in the doctor’s past must be much more meaningful than Marlowe’s casual response to it has let it be so far. It’s also telling that Kingsley goes out of his way to bring up the doctor again in their latest interview: when Marlowe insists on talking to Kingsley’s secretary (‘It’s my business to ask all sorts of questions of all sorts of people’ ), Kingsley, having been reluctant to allow such an interview, superfluously adds that ‘As a matter of fact she knew the Almores. She knew Almore’s wife, the one who killed herself. Lavery knew her too. Could that have any possible connexion with this business?’ (114). Of course it could; it must. Marlowe’s reply – ‘I don’t know. You’re in love with her, aren’t you?’ – oddly makes him seem less sharp than he ought to be, unless we’re to assume that even in a fast-moving conversation he is mentally storing up more potential ‘connexions’ than he lets on.
If Crystal was the one in the lake, then Muriel was at the hotel with Crystal’s car and lover, and took the train to El Paso, and – why not? – sent the wire to Kingsley saying that she (Crystal) was eloping with Lavery. Her clothes are the ones in Lavery’s home; she might be the one who shot Lavery in the shower. Not, I think, out of revenge or passion, but from a more calculating need to cover her tracks. The one other thing we know about Mildred Haviland is that Kingsley was evasive, or rather over-emphatic, in denying he had heard of her (67), and repeated it in the following call: ‘Why were you asking me last night about some name – Mildred something or other?’ (94). This looks like a bluff to me. But though Kingsley seems to have things to hide (and a passion for his secretary, who is a potential suspect in Lavery’s murder), is he a major villain in this piece? The tendency might be to think so: to guess that the client is the criminal, making for the biggest possible inversion from where we started. In that case we’d guess for instance that he had ordered Crystal’s murder at the lake. But I don’t think he did. His behaviour in his interview with Marlowe (107-115) gives a sense that he genuinely wants to protect his wife, despite their estrangement. If he’s the villain, then he’s dissembling in a way more thorough than I think Chandler would see as appropriate for the story – it’s a front that the reader can’t really see through.
I love Raymond Chandler.