Sunday, 17 March 2013

Week Eleven - Jeanette

The Lady In The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)
Recommended by Helen

My last book of 2012 – and the final one before this project dictated my reading – was A Bright And Guilty Place by Richard Raynor. This told the true story of various characters in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a city fatted with corruption, where high emotion and personal recklessness met icy determination and ruthless dollar-chasing. It was absolutely brilliant.

A Bright And Guilty Place was an excellent omen for A Tale Of Two Readers. It was recommended to me – well, enthusiastically pressed onto me – by a friend, Aaron, over a quiet drink in a Soho blues bar (itself rather a bright, and perhaps guilty, place). As I read it, I thought: if this is the kind of book that’s clogging up my closest peeps’ shelves, then A Tale Of Two Readers is utterly the right thing to do.

Raymond Chandler observed the world of A Bright And Guilty Place incredibly well.

‘I thought they cleaned this town up,’ I said. ‘I thought they had it so that a decent man could walk the streets at night without wearing a bulletproof vest.’
‘They cleaned it up some,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t want it too clean. They might scare away a dirty dollar.’

Raymond Chandler is that uber-rare writer: someone who has near-universal appeal. His books captivate across a broad spectrum of literary tastes. There really is something for everyone. His storylines are intricate yet logical; his characters archetypal, but not clichéd; and his descriptions things of snowflake beauty. Reading A Bright And Guilty Place also helped me understand the deeper intent of Chandler. There was a web of sleaze strangling LA. Shady motives are not limited to individual antagonists. They are a collective problem, an almost inevitable product of their environment.

In The Lady In The Lake, Phillip Marlowe dots between his native LA, a sleepy resort called Little Fawn Lake, and the neighbouring small town Bay City. He’s been hired to track down the AWOL Crystal Kingsley, primarily to prevent her rash ways from bringing scandal to her estranged husband, Derace. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a simple job for Marlowe. It uncovers extortion, dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse, police brutality and, of course, murder.

If murderers didn’t think they could get away with their murders, very few would be committed.

The grace and economy of this book is stunning. Chandler tells you so much about someone simply by the way he or she lights a cigarette. This approach means the reader picks up the essentials of character quickly (sometimes misinterpreting, with devastating effect later in the book), and is free to concentrate on the plot. And it is a mentally demanding storyline – far more so than the other Chandler I’ve read, Farewell, My Lovely.

Chandler’s style also allows for some tartly funny moments.

      ‘You’re to wear Derry’s scarf. […] It’s distinctive enough.’
It was all of that. It was an affair of fat great kidneys laid down on an egg-yolk background. It would be almost as distinctive as if I went in there wheeling a red, white and blue wheelbarrow.

I did go through a phase of detective novels, perhaps six or seven years ago. However, I tended to privilege the early English detectives over the hardboiled American dicks. I missed out. The Lady In The Lake tells me of how many satisfying reads – Chandler wrote seven Marlowe books – I have awaiting me.

A movie was made in 1947. Unusually for the time, The Lady In The Lake was shot from the point of view of Philip Marlowe. (Note: there are spoilers in this clip, but unless you have a very good memory or plan to read The Lady In The Lake next week, they’ll probably wash over you).

I might give that one a miss. The first ten minutes of Hallowe’en will do for me, thanks very much.

And I’ve written all this without yet mentioning the woman who recommended it to me. She’s married to Alex (who is coming up later), and Alex has been a good friend for more than ten years. Alex and Helen got together after I left London, and I infrequently see Helen. Thus, she could have just been one of those people, a friend’s partner, who meant little more than a hug and a ‘how are you?’. But, no.

My 2011 was gruelling.  Although my spine was straightening as 2012 reached springtime, I was still dealing with fallout. It was at this point, at a wedding reception, that someone came up behind me, put her hands over my eyes, and said ‘guess who?’ in a melodic voice. I knew who it was, and I was so pleased to know that such a sunny person was close, that it was all I could do to keep a little splash of a tear from wetting her palms.