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.
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.
Chandler 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.