Book Review: Farewell, My Lovely (Raymond Chandler)

Farewell, My Lovely

Raymond Chandler

1940

“I filled a pipe and reached for the packet of paper matches. I lit the pipe carefully. She watched that with approval. Pipe smokers were solid men. She was going to be disappointed with me.”

The second novel to feature private eye Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely is a defining piece of hardboiled detective fiction – a dark tale of love, violence and corruption in a world gone bad.

As with many of Chandler’s novels, Farewell, My Lovely came about as the result of his ‘cannibalising’ of three earlier short stories (which I have to admit to having yet to read): The Man Who Loved Dogs, Try the Girl, and Mandarin’s Jade. Each being self-contained stories, Chandler worked them into one complete narrative, and in doing so produced one of the finest books of his career.

The story begins with Marlowe having a chance encounter with a giant of a man known as ‘Moose’ Malloy. Recently released from an eight-year stretch inside following a bank robbery, Moose is on the search for his former fiancée, a nightclub crooner called Velma Valento. After destroying what remains of the bar where she used to work at, as well as inadvertently killing the new owner in the process, the Moose hires Marlowe to the case. After taking care of the police now looking to put Moose back inside, Marlowe tracks down the widow of the bar’s original owner – an alcohol-soaked wreck of a former showgirl called Jessie Florian, who tells Marlowe that Velma is dead.

Marlowe doesn’t have long to wait for more work to show up, and shortly after this meeting is hired by a gigolo called Lindsey Marriott to act as a bodyguard to him while he oversees the payment of $10,000 to a gang of blackmailers who stole a rare jade jewel from one of his female ‘friends’ during a mysterious hold-up. One set-up later and Marlowe finds himself with another dead body on his hands. From there, Marlowe encounters the owner of the stolen jewel – Helen Grayle, and finds himself investigating the shady world of back-street gangsters and blackmail operations, all whilst trying to find both Moose Malloy and also the elusive Velma Valento. Inevitably, the two cases become entwined and Marlowe discovers the truth about the criminal organisations running the city, and the web of deceit surrounding Velma’s whereabouts.

“‘A nice quiet place Sam run, too.’ He said. ‘Ain’t nobody been knifed there in a month.”

Of all of Chandler’s works, I rank Farewell, My Lovely as being the darkest of them all. From the gamblers running the show from illicit off-shore gambling ships, through to the back-street hospitals and ‘psychic consultants’, Los Angeles is written as a place truly under the control of society’s underbelly. If the police aren’t corrupt, then they simply struggle to find it in themselves to care anymore.

At the centre of it all is Philip Marlowe. As ever, he’s the shop-soiled Galahad roaming through the streets of Los Angeles, picking up the fragments of shattered lies for a measly few hundred dollars, all done with a cigarette and a smile. It’s one of the more violent Chandler stories, and Marlowe gets probably the toughest ride of his career – from being repeatedly sapped around the head with blackjacks, having to secretly climb his way up onto a boat to meet a bunch of tommy-gun wielding gangsters, being framed for a murder, and not to mention being shot full of dope while being held a backstreet hospital, he takes quite a beating. Seemingly the last incorruptible man left around, He doesn’t come out of it a richer man, nor perhaps a better man, but there is a feeling that he has chipped away at least some of the rottenness that exists around him.

As with The Big Sleep, Chandler created a cast of memorable supporting characters for Marlowe to square up against. Moose Malloy himself is one of the most unique characters in the series – portrayed as a simple-minded hoodlum who, despite killing two people during the course of the novel, retains a sort of sympathetic air, in being a man solely out to find the love he lost years ago. Despite his importance to the plot, he’s not quite as prevalent in the book as he was to become in some of the film adaptions that followed. But his presence is felt throughout, with the cops out after him and Marlowe out to find his missing Velma. Safe to say, it doesn’t end well for the Moose, the single-minded yet loyal giant described by Marlowe as “not bigger than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.”  Even after everything that happens, his final death is undeniably tragic.

Velma herself (or Mrs Grayle, if you like) is one of Chandler’s best femme fatales, although she is almost overshadowed by the character of Jessie Florian – a pitiful, drunken widow who has some memorable stand-offs with Marlowe, and who has much more significance the story than her beginnings seem to suggest. The ‘psychic consultant’ Jules Amthor – in reality a frontman for a wider blackmail group – is a great villain and it’s a shame his role is limited to just one scene, but it’s a memorable one and interesting when you consider that he effectively ‘beats’ Marlowe – verbally sparring with him before having Marlowe beaten, drugged and left to die. At no point does Marlowe get the chance to deliver justice back to him – arguably it could be seen as a loose plot point (in the same way that the Eddie Mars storyline is left unresolved at the end of The Big Sleep), but equally it helps the book’s themes of corruption and of crime going unpunished.

At its heart, there are few characters in the story who you could really describe as being ‘good’ – Farewell, My Lovely is very much a world without heroes. The only exception perhaps being Anne Riordan, an eager young journalist who aids Marlowe (although she does come across as solely being a plot device used to help link two parts of the story together – namely the introduction of Marlowe to Mrs Grayle following the death of Marriott). But even by the end, she herself seems to have lost faith in the world, and especially with Marlowe.

In terms of writing, it stands up as some of Chandler’s best. From the darkly beautiful passages (“the wet air was as cold as the ashes of love”) through to the wise-cracks (“He stared at me and his left hand began to edge towards the gun. He belonged to the Wandering Hand Society. The girls wold have had a time with him”), Chandler really brought his A-game to the page (although it is hard to overlook some the earlier chapters’ ‘choice’ descriptions of African Americans). Even though it is the product of the collation of three short stories, the book doesn’t feel ‘copied and pasted’ together, and on the whole it flows nicely and forms a strong, coherent story. On which note, the book features some of the most unique passages that Chandler ever wrote. The most notable of these has to be the chapter awakens in a sleazy back-street hospital, having been sapped by a pair of corrupt police officers, then left to rot for a few days in his cell aided by a bottle of whiskey loaded with dope. Marlowe’s awakening, his continued dips into and out of drug-laden madness, and his eventual interrogation of his captor are all described in a sinister detail, creating a sequence which really stands out amongst the rest of the series.

I like smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.”

Whilst the book is consistently good, Chandler arguably saved the best until last, with the final chapter serves as pretty much an epilogue, outlining the final ending to Velma’s life – having fled town after shooting Moose Malloy dead in front of Marlowe, she is found singing in a nightclub where she is discovered by a passing cop. Cornered backstage, she takes her own life, as well as the life of her pursuer. It comes as a final, sharp kick to the reader’s guts which ends the book on a downbeat note, fully in keeping with the everything that’s come to pass. It’s a powerful note to go out on.

Overall, I’d rank Farewell, My Lovely as probably the third best in the Marlowe series – resting just behind The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, but there’s little that separates them all. The book features some of Chandler’s strongest writing, and is probably the best of them all in terms of its depiction of Los Angeles and the general world of corruption and emptiness which Marlowe works in. Transcribed to film three times (the most of any of Marlowe story), each with varying levels of success and flaws, none of them quite match the haunting beauty of Chandler’s novel (although the 1975 version with Robert Mitchum does do a great job of capturing the atmosphere of 1940s Los Angeles). It really shows a master at the pinnacle of his game, and is one no hardboiled fan should do without.

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One thought on “Book Review: Farewell, My Lovely (Raymond Chandler)

  1. Pingback: Farewell, My Lovelies: Three Faces of Philip Marlowe | The High Window

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