Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Meat

Every year I try to re-read one of Raymond Chandler's seven completed novels, and though other interests and commitments sometimes win out, I did manage to have a second go at The Lady in the Lake this year [collected in a lovely Library of America edition with the rest of his later novels]. It was a fun experience, as it's the one I've read the fewest number of times, and as such, remember the least well. But there's also a reason for that--The Lady in the Lake simply isn't Chandler's best.

Still, Chandler at his worst is on par with pretty much any other genre writer at his or her best. Or at least close. Genre writers, you see, are often quite good at producing well-paced and memorable stories, but it's rare to see them elevate their game to the level of art. In Chandler's case, that's pretty much how it happened. In the beginning, he was a company man who liked pulp magazines and figured, if he could copy the Perry Mason formula, he could make some money as a writer, maybe even break into Hollywood. It just so happened that he had a way with words.

That said, there are times when when Chandler reminds me more of those literary fiction types who like to slum it in genre, the kind for whom genre is a vehicle and a means to an end rather than the ends in themselves. Like Thomas Pynchon, perhaps, or Margaret Atwood (though without Atwood's tortured relationship to science fiction, since Chandler never had a problem identifying with the detective novel). The shoe does seem to fit, especially when you consider the fact that, while the Marlowe novels are atmospheric and deeply compelling human dramas, they aren't necessarily that good as mysteries.

In many ways, The Lake in the Lake is the novel that best exemplifies this dynamic. Action begins with private investigator Philip Marlowe at the office of one Derace Kingsley, a perfume executive whose wife has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He's received a telegram from El Paso, Texas, in which Crystal Kingsley informs him that she's running off to Mexico with shady casanova Chris Lavery. Only, when Kingsley runs into Lavery in Los Angeles, it becomes clear that this isn't what happened. Kingsley has Marlowe go up to his cabin at Puma Point (the real-world's Big Bear, for the curious), where Crystal Kingsley was last seen. Marlowe encounters Bill Chess, the alcoholic caretaker of the Kingsley property, only to find a body floating in nearby Little Fawn Lake. Several more murders occur, and Marlowe gets tangled up with a shady doctor, corrupt Bay City (Santa Monica) cops and a rather intricate game of bait-and-switch.

While entertaining, the story is convoluted, meandering and hinges on a few implausible plot mechanisms. But that isn't why we read Chandler. Rather, it's for the tight, playful and elusive dialogue, where more is said between the lines than in them. It's for the heady atmospherics--the cloying menace of 1940s Los Angeles, the grit and grime underneath the Hollywood glitter--and for the endlessly complex characters, with their opaque motivations and rich histories of pain and heartache. And it's for Marlowe himself, a tragic figure trying to live by a code in a world where corruption and malfeasance are the norm, and where any attempt to swim against the stream is pretty much doomed to failure. In such a world, toughness isn't measured by how you throw a punch, but how you take them. Marlowe sure does takes his share, and he keeps coming up for more. But he knows as well as we do that it can't go on forever. He has his victories, but they are small and pyrrhic at best.

The most memorable moments in The Lady in the Lake come from Marlowe's  interactions with Bay City detective Al Degarmo and Kingsley's secretary, Adrienne Fromset. Degarmo initially appears to be a cardboard cutout of the sinister and perhaps a little slow cop on the take, but he turns out to have a peculiar, complex relationship to the events at hand, and a slippery set of motivations. It's never quite clear, up until the penultimate scene, what he'll do and why. Then there's Fromset, who Marlowe quickly (and correctly) recognizes as the most competent person in the whole affair, and whose ultimate role in the drama is left ambiguous. There's more than Chandler tells us, but we're left to ponder what that might be on our own.

All that said, The Lady in the Lake fails to measure up to some of Chandler's other novels. It doesn't have the revolutionary exuberance of The Big Sleep, which mapped out new crime fiction territory so thoroughly that most of it is now cliche. And, though weighty, it lacks the emotional heft of Farewell, My Lovely or The Long Goodbye. Still, if you like crime fiction, and especially if you like the American roman noir, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Just maybe not as often as you read a few of the others...

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the writing, especially the dialogue; +1 for Degarmo and Fromset.

Penalties: -1 for not actually being a well-constructed mystery; -1 for a the "yeah, right" ending.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."