Marlowe’s about to give up on a completely routine case when he finds himself in the wrong place at the right time to get caught up in a murder that leads to a ring of jewel thieves, another murder, a fortune-teller, a couple more murders, and more corruption than your average graveyard.
Farewell, My Lovely is the second novel by Raymond Chandler that follows the hardboiled Philip Marlowe, who works as a private detective in Los Angeles in the late 1930s. Marlowe, though not the first of his kind, feels like the quintessential pulp/noir detective character. He’s intelligent, tough, heavy-drinking, wise-cracking, desired by women, and yet a loner in his personal life. At the same time, the novel has a certain humanity to it that made it unique while towing the genre’s lines.
There is a thoughtfulness to Chandler’s prose that I really enjoyed. His use of metaphor and figurative language breathes life into the setting and characters. We see the world through the eyes of Marlowe, so this adds dimension to his character as well, showing us how he perceives other people. The narration is at its most effective when revealing these characters, describing qualities in their eyes, body language, size, or tone in elaborate ways that help the reader to understand them on a more tangible level, albeit not always all that complex. Nobody is really good or bad through and through either. Even the most dangerous people in the story have a reasonable, sympathetic, or softer side to them, allowing shades of grey to dominate the story.
The mystery of the novel was perhaps the most intriguing part for me, though not my favourite. Despite having a lot of the trappings of the hardboiled crime genre, it feels much less romanticized than I had expected. Marlowe is clever and capable, but hardly a savant when it comes to being a detective. The mystery is one he’s practically yanked into and continues to pursue out of stubbornness. Along the way, he is put through the ringer, and while he does persevere in the end it never quite feels like he has a confident handle on things.
It was a plotline I found myself getting lost in — in both good and bad ways — sometimes leaving me bemused at what this murder mystery is actually amounting to. Marlowe follows threads down different paths into the company of crooked and corrupt organizations, which are related but do not clearly provide crucial evidence for the case’s resolution. For the most part I did enjoy the twist and turns of this odyssey through the underworld, but toward the end it did start to get a little tiresome.
Written at the time the story is set, the narrative is steeped in the attitudes of the era, be they appealing, humorous, or ugly. While not viciously so, for instance, the racism of the time is quite apparent. Marlowe himself appears about as dismissive of the black victims of crime as the police that take the case, not to mention the derogatory language that is so casually thrown around as well. The book also has old fashioned attitudes about women, though this was relatively muted. Lastly, Marlowe’s hard drinking is concerning, which the book only makes passing references to possibly being a problem. He spends an entire scene downing glass after glass of scotch, only to miraculously drive home without incident.
I will admit the use of alcohol is more humorous to me, as it plays into the over-the-top aspects of the genre, in the same way one might find amusement in ridiculous stunts in an action movie. As for the racism or sexism, while it’s conceptually distasteful it feels accurate. I don’t believe the book is representing inflated attitudes of the time to push a negative agenda, but rather simply gives an honest portrayal of 1930s America and I will not fault it for that.
If you like detective fiction, I’d recommend Farewell, My Lovely, and you don’t need to have read the first book to understand any of the plot. Though I’ve not read a lot of detective fiction myself, it doesn’t feel as formulaic as one might think, with the exception of the ending that had its expected wrap-up scene to get all the details together more neatly.