The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. Noir, straight up.
I sought out a Raymond Chandler novel to read after I finished The Black Dahlia. After reading a praised neo-noir I wanted to experience an original detective story from an acknowledged master.
Chandler packs more atmosphere into his first chapter than seems possible. It should come as no surprise that the writing style of an earlier time evokes that era. In his generation you really could know a person by their appearance, what they wore, how they presented themself. Chandler exposes characters’ inner life through the lift of an eyebrow or the immaculately pressed edge of an handkerchief. Minute details are presented in an almost airy style; the color and thickness of the carpet in an elevator, the tidy organization of a kitchen, a woman’s sloppily applied lipstick. They all add up to short but remarkably evocative descriptions of the places and people of Chandler’s era.
P.I. Philip Marlowe is hired by perfume magnate Derace Kingsley to track down his estranged wife, Crystal. It’s not because Kingsley is concerned for her welfare; he is concerned about potential scandal stemming from the Mexican divorce she has threatened him with.
Mere words into the book Marlowe reveals a puckish sense of humor. He deliberately antagonizes Kingsley but accepts the job. He tests his client’s willingness to let him do the job his way. Knowing that he is free to walk away at any time Marlowe tweaks the nose of a wealthy and powerful businessman in his own office. He even flirts lightly with Kingsley’s secretary. For all his trappings of power, Kingsley is still a pawn, still subject to manipulation and control by another. Marlowe is an agent, a person moving through the world, less subject to its vicissitudes. Kingsley needs Marlowe, Marlowe doesn’t need him.
This isn’t to say that on his way to finding out what has happened to Crystal Kingsley Marlowe’s journey doesn’t hit several unexpected twists. He comes across the body of a woman, Muriel Chess, in the lake next to the Kingsley’s summer cabin. As he tracks down Crystal’s lover and traces her last known steps he runs into a drunk husband, corrupt doctors and policeman and his himself beaten, arrested and framed for murder.
Chandler’s appeal is that he shows that money and influence don’t protect people from being human. The weaknesses that afflict the poor and powerless are visited on the affluent and influential as well. Marlowe is the common narrator to the troubles of all the people he meets. Marlowe is the clever, insightful, almost detached hero. He solves the mystery and then fades back out of society, a man helping society but living somewhat outside of it.
The Lady in the Lake was a delightful read and I can’t want to pick up more of Chandler’s works.