Category Archives: Fiction

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

2050For a film noir, Murder, My Sweet is a very upbeat, entertaining film. Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe is never serious, often making flippant or whimsical remarks about situations in a wry tone.

I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.

Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe wasn’t this whimsical in The Big Sleep. Most people posit Bogart as the definitive Marlowe, but though I like The Big Sleep and Humphrey Bogart (actually, I like the original ’45 version rather than the generally viewed ’46 version), I found Powell’s Marlowe more distinctive. Bogart’s Marlowe is still Sam Spade, just with more principles.

Farewell, My Lovely (the title was changed to Murder, My Sweet for the movie) was written in 1940, the second Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler. When Chandler first wrote his Marlowe novels he did so by combining short stories into something that resembled a cohesive whole. Like The Big Sleep, the story is not all that clear; it feels like there are at least two or three plots that have been intertwined.

Philip Marlowe meets Moose Malloy, just out from prison, while returning from an investigation and accidentally becomes entangled in Malloy’s search for Velma Valento. But Malloy shoots a man – a black man, so people don’t seem to mind as much – and goes on the run and Marlowe is asked by the police to help them find him. Meanwhile, Marlowe also becomes entangled in another murder that seems to be tangential to Malloy. He is hired by Lindsay Marriott to protect him when he tries to buy back a stolen jade necklace from a gang. But Marriott is murdered and next Marlowe finds himself entangled in the affairs of the owner of the jade necklace, the lovely Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle. Marlowe is also assisted somewhat in his investigations by a reporter, Anne Riordan, who has an awful crush on Marlowe.

Marlowe is apparently irresistible to women because in all his books women are constantly flirting, kissing, or trying to get into bed with him, which seems like wish fulfillment by the author. But Marlowe remains coolly above such things, practically a god. Anne even makes a slightly embarrassing speech at the end about how wonderful he is. No matter what happens, he just keeps going until he resolves the case. He’s a superman rising amidst the squalor and corruption of the city.

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor from Murder, My Sweet

The entire time that I was reading the book, I could hear Dick Powell voice narrating the story – it is written in first person and bears Marlowe’s distinctively whimsical, cynical tone. His analogies are often unexpected and quite humorous. When he is chauffeured in a fancy car he remarks that,

Sitting there alone I felt like a high-class corpse laid out by an undertaker with a lot of good taste.

Exhausted one night, he drives recklessly home and “takes the red lights as they come.” It always makes me laugh. He’s also is quite adept at sensory description. When he writes that “I ran my hand up and down the door frame. It felt slimy. Just touching it made me want to take a bath,” I wanted to wipe my hand off on something. His surroundings are dirty, venal, and corrupt, but he refuses to get dragged down into it. Raymond Chandler liked to think of Marlowe as a kind of knight sallying forth to right wrongs – relatively speaking. He’s a cynical knight who can only do so much, but gets by through sheer tenacity. It’s not clear that he’s an especially brilliant detective. He seems to get beat up a lot. But you can tell that underneath, he still retains a streak of sentimentality and romanticism.

He takes time to rescue a pink bug and manages to feel compassion for a variety of people, some of whom are actually killers. And by the end – after he’s been beaten up, drugged, several murders are committed, encountered corrupt cops – he still puts a romantic spin on events and the characters practically rise to Shakespearean heights of love and sacrifice despite all the brutality, selfishness and murder. Even killers and crooks and depressed old men can love sincerely and deeply, even if the object of their love is a murderess. But Marlowe even finds poignancy in the murderess’ final act in life. Marlowe says to police detective Randall,

I”m not saying she was a saint or even a halfway nice girl. Not ever…But what she did and the way she did it, kept her from coming back here for trial. Think that over. And who would have that trial hurt most?…An old man who had loved not wisely, but too well.”

Randall said sharply: “That’s just sentimental.”

“Sure. It sounded like that when I said it. Probably all a mistake anyway. So long. Did my pink bug ever get back up here?”

Considering that she shot a cop in order to enact her great sacrifice, there is some irony in Marlowe’s sentimentality…but it’s still sentimental. He wants to think that these people occasionally have a noble impulse.

downloadChandler even manages to make fun of the more polished detective stories, like Philo Vance or The Thin Man. After he solves the case, Ann Riordan tells him humorously that he “ought to have given a dinner party,” in black suit and white tie and invite all the suspects to listen to him unmask the villain. Instead, we get a lovesick gangster, Marlowe in his pajamas and a femme fatale in her white fox evening cloak and emerald earrings, all in Marlowe’s cheap apartment.

The book is astonishingly racist, with derogatory epitaphs spread generously throughout the book regarding African Americans, Italians, Native Americans, that took me aback. Marlowe even meets an “Indian” who’s English is so bad that I kept expecting it to turn out that he wasn’t a real Indian at all, but someone pretending to be one and talking like people expected Indians to talk in the movies. Though the presence of so much racism does add to the sense of moral squalor throughout the book.

I enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely more than The Big Sleep; it was funnier and more poignant. I even enjoyed it more than The Maltese Falcon, but that partially is because the movie The Maltese Falcon is so close to the book that reading the book felt like reading a screenplay, though an enjoyable one. Murder, My Sweet is a streamlined version of the book and so reading the book remains fresh and original.

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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Fiction


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George Eliot’s Middlemarch – Seeking Greatness

19089When I first tried to read Middlemarch perhaps six or seven years ago, I got bored several hundred pages into the book. I tried again several months ago and I couldn’t figure out why on earth I had been so bored originally. It is a magnificent book, and I mean magnificent in its specific meaning of great, impressive, grand, intricate, exalted.

There are so many characters and so much going on in this book, but one theme stood out to me and that is the pursuit of greatness and one of the brilliant things about Eliot is that she should set her magnificent novel of the pursuit of greatness in a humble village called Middlemarch. But, as she writes of Dr. Lydgate, who has come to Middlemarch to study fever:

Does it seem incongruous to you that a Middlemarch surgeon should dream of himself as a discoverer? Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who ‘broke the barriers of the heavens” – did he not once play a provincial church organ…Each of those Shining Ones had to walk on the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments…

Great deeds are not always played out on great stages and can get tangled up in petty concerns. But Middlemarch is also about the failure to achieve extraordinary things and by the end of the book it was difficult for me to tell if Eliot was celebrating the subtle power of ordinary life or lamenting how ordinary life prevents people from being extraordinary.

There are many characters in Middlemarch, but the two main ones are Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate. Dr. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch to study fever, but through his disastrous marriage to a woman who neither appreciates his work nor is willing to bend a little to help him, Lydgate leaves Middlemarch a failure in his eyes and instead becomes a financially successful doctor for wealthy patrons.

But Dorothea Brooks is a different case. She longs to achieve greatness – Eliot compares her to a St. Theresa in soul – but unlike Lydgate she has no specific outlet for her dreams. She is the rare sort of genuine saint who never thinks of herself and devotes her entire energies to trying to help others. But she rarely has a clear idea of how. The best she can do is to marry a great man and help him achieve his goals. This is what she thinks she is doing when she marries Mr. Casaubon, an elderly scholar who turns out to have a dry and shriveled soul that has stunted his capacity to perceive life. And when Casaubon dies and she falls in love with his cousin, Will Ladislaw, she marries him and disappoints her family and friends.

Many who knew her thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another [Will] and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done…

Even the author does not tell us what Dorothea should have done. Dorothea herself always had felt that “there was always something better which she might have done if she had only been better or known better.” It is difficult for me to imagine what that could have been, though. But she does achieve great things in a small way. The book ends as follows:

But the effect of her [Dorothea] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey as Will and Dorothea in BBC's 1994 Middlemarch

Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey as Will and Dorothea in BBC’s 1994 Middlemarch

It is a beautiful and true thought and it almost seems like Eliot is suggesting that true greatness can be found in living modestly for those around us. But that’s not really the full story. Lydgate certainly could have had a greater impact on the world if he had been wiser and been able to follow-through on his work. And regarding Dorothea, Eliot bemoans that “the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape [ardent deeds of saints like Theresa, who Dorothea should have been like] is forever gone.” Lydgate self-destructs; the trouble with Dorothea seems to be that she lives in a society where there is no room for a woman to really do much work. Dorothea doesn’t know what she wants to do because there is no context for her to do anything except marry a man and help him be great. Instead, she lives in what Eliot calls “the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty.” She has free time and nothing to fill it with. Lydgate could at least become a doctor.

I have often heard it said that it was a great tragedy that Lydgate and Dorothea did not marry, but that strikes me as unsatisfactory. She would still be “absorbed into the life of another,” just as with Will and Mr. Casaubon. It is true that Dorothea and Lydgate understand each other, but that is because of their shared perspective. Dorothea says to Lydgate in a beautiful scene near the end of the book, when Lydgate is in disgrace in Middlemarch and Dorothea seeks to help him, “There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that – to love what is great and try to reach it, and yet to fail.” Lydgate understood this perfectly and what is so lovely about the scene is that it is the first time, for either of them, when they have met another person who knows what they feel. For one brief moment, a part of them that was always lonely is shared with another and they are not lonely. But Lydgate still sees Dorothea in terms of how she could inspire another man to greatness.

In the end, Eliot seems to be trying to have things both ways: on the one hand there are people who long to do extraordinary things and on the other hand there is plain, ordinary life. At the end of the book, Eliot admonishes the ‘insignificant people” that their small deeds create the milieu in which people like Lydgate and Dorothea live. The question is whether the insignificant people, combined, have a greater affect than the individuals who long for more. The happiest people in Middlemarch seem to be people like Mr. Garth, the land agent, who has no particular pretensions to achieving anything, but does a great deal of good throughout the book.

But in many ways, it is a book about people trying and failing and Eliot honors the nobility in their efforts. Even the businessman, Mr. Bulstrode, has tried to achieve a great work for God and through his own failings is brought down. But at the end of the book, Eliot’s plea to the ‘insignificant people’ is not for Bulstrode or Lydgate, but for Dorothea. Unlike Bulstrode or Lydgate, she did not have the means to achieve anything at all. The tragedy is not that she failed, but that her general desire to achieve greatness was never able to become anything other than a vague desire.


Posted by on May 8, 2015 in Fiction


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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes – by Anita Loos

GentlemenPreferBlondesAnita Loos is one of the most accomplished female American writers of the 1900s, author of novels, screenplays (for both silents and talkies), subtitles for silent movies, several memoirs, and Broadway plays. She also personified the flapper in the 1920s with her bobbed hair and wit and was just as much a prominent figure as a movie star, moving not only in Hollywood circles, but literary ones, as well. In fact, it was her friend, H.L. Mencken who inadvertently inspired her to write her most famous work, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Loos got the idea while traveling on a train with some friends, including Douglas Fairbanks, and she noticed that one woman, a blonde, was receiving all the attention. Men were practically bending over backwards to help her, whilst ignoring Loos, who felt she was just as attractive and youthful as the blonde, and a good deal more intelligent. Likewise, she noticed that her brilliant and satiric friend, H.L. Mencken, fell for a whole procession of low-intelligence blondes. In response, Loos wrote the novel that embodies the flapper era better than any novel I’ve ever read. As classic and iconic of the era as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a great deal more fun.

Published in 1926, the book is constructed as a diary, written by Lorelei Lee, who was told by a gentlemen friend that “if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book.” The diary lasts from that point until she marries, a period of several months. It’s a satire. Loos skewers everyone in sight. Lorelei Lee is the blonde who is astonishingly ignorant, though with impressive street smarts. Practically every man she encounters is predatory, though their street-smartness is never up to Lorelei’s. Dorothy Shaw is Lorelei’s irrepressible friend, who never does learn how to be refined (Lorelei is striving for refinement, though her notions of what is refined is rather shaky) and constantly dismays her friend by falling in love with poor men. Lorelei would never allow herself to do anything so ill-advised as to fall in love at all, let alone with a man who had no money.

In New York, everybody parties, everybody drinks though it is the height of prohibition (Lorelei is filled with wonder, when she travels to Europe, at how people can go to hotel and order a drink). There are actors, musicians, intellectual gentlemen, movie producers, reformers, rich business men, old money, new money. But all the men seem curiously the same. They all profess to be interested in Lorelei’s brains and they all talk a great deal. One of Lorelei’s greatest assets is not only that she an irresistible blonde, but that she is an excellent listener.

Jean Harlow and Anita Loos - Loos wrote the screenplay for Harlow's hit movie, Red-Headed Woman

Jean Harlow and Anita Loos – Loos wrote the screenplay for Harlow’s hit movie, Red-Headed Woman

When the story begins, Lorlei is being ‘educated’ by Mr. Eisman, the button king. He is always sending her books and allows her to rack up a truly impressive array of bills. Lorelei chiefly likes him because he knows how to treat ‘we girls,” which is to say, he knows to shower them with presents and jewelry. However, being educated by Mr. Eisman does not prevent her from seeing other gentlemen friends, who all profess to be fascinated by her mind and long to educated her. And when Mr. Eisman sends Lorelei and Dorothy to Europe for more education, she meets Mr. Henry Spofford, whose business is censorship and who goes completely nuts over Lorelei. The question for Lorelei is, can she stand him enough to marry him?

Meanwhile, Lorelei and Dorothy travel through Europe: London and Paris, Central Europe, Germany, Austria. What is so funny is that they are on the trip to broaden their horizons, but Lorelei never ceases to look at the world with her unshakably unique, American perspective. She has little use for London gentlemen since they don’t buy presents. She comes to the conclusion that only American men are worthwhile, since only American men spend so liberally. She does, however, manage to wangle a diamond tiara out of a Sir Francis Beekman, but she has to work at it.

She is unimpressed with Central Europe because all she sees are farms where the women work and the men seem to take it easy, which is an experience that has no bearing on her life. In Germany, all the men eat sausages. She is not so much interested in landmarks as she is in shopping. New York, she decides, is really the place to be. In Vienna she meets Dr. Freud (she spells it Froyd), whose theory that inhibitions are the root cause of neuroses is somewhat upset when he discovers that Lorelei has no inhibitions. She even once acted violently, shooting a man who was two-timing her.

Loos prose is clever and absolutely a hoot. Lorelei cannot spell to save her life. ‘Subject’ becomes subjeck, intrigued is intreeged, negligee is negligay Most hysterically is how the Eiffel Tower is spelled the Eyefull Tower and the Hofbrau becomes the Half Brow. A Frenchman, who’s name I assume is Robert (pronounced ro-bair in French), is spelled Robber. Ironically, he is trying to rob Lorelei.

Movie adaption of Broadway play adaption of Loos' novel - 1953

Movie adaption of Broadway play adaption of Loos’ novel – 1953

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was extremely successful when it was published, so Anita Loos wrote a sequel in 1927 called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The book is still written from the perspective of Lorelei, who is now married and crashing the social register, but she now has literary ambitions and wants to write the life story of her friend, Dorothy Shaw, who grew up on a Carnival, upgraded to working in Ziegfeld’s Follies and still has the unfortunately tendency to fall in love with penniless men.

But Gentlemen Marry Brunette‘s is still fun, but it lacks the irrepressible sparkle of the first novel. Loos is still taking aim at hypocritical, reforming morals, middle class morals, upper class decadence, artistic pretense, etc. However, because Lorelei is no longer recounting her own story, complete with her unintentionally funny and revealing comments, the prose suffers a bit and has a less spontaneous, stream of conscience feel and is more straightforward.

Edith Wharton called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the “great American novel.” It’s certainly one of the most entertaining. But it is also a fantastic examination of an era with cultural references, real people, attitudes, prohibition. I would recommend it over The Great Gatsby any day.

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Posted by on April 20, 2015 in Fiction


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