The Classic American
As promised, I’m going to write this week about detective stories.
The fictional detective and the typical fictional crime have changed a lot since back in the days ( I won’t say how long ago) when at the age of about eleven I read my first Agatha Christie novel. Throughout my teens I continued reading them and added books by other writers of the genre – Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon, “Ellery Queen” and of course Arthur Conan Doyle.
Kept alive by television dramas and movies for the cinema, many of the stories are still fresh in my mind, others are totally forgotten to the point that I cannot always remember whether or not I ever read them.
Many detective novels of yesteryear featured “gentlemen,” or smart, fast-talking private eyes and lawyers; the mysteries they had to solve seem, looking back, not to have belonged to the real world at all. Even the villains were often “nice” people who just happened to be murderers as well.
By contrast, the modern detectives with their phobias, hang-ups and slovenly habits are much less likeable, much less admirable as people. The criminals are psychotic monsters, and the murders are much too like the real horrors that bombard us daily from our TV screens.
For my Christmas and New Year holiday reading, I chose three novels from past and present. There was no plan. I merely saw the books in the shops and bought them.
‘No cause for excitement whatever. It’s only Marlowe, finding another body. He does it rather well by now.’
The first was Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, one of those I can’t ever remember reading. The plot was familiar but that may be because I once saw the film.
The Lady in the Lake was first published in the 1940s and features as main protagonist and narrator Chandler’s PI Philip Marlowe in a story about a missing wife. Marlowe is one of these slick, fast-talking types I mentioned earlier and he quickly figures there is more to the woman’s disappearance than Derace Kingsley, her husband, imagines.
‘Never sit with your back to a green curtain. It always turns out badly. Something always happens. Who had I said that to? A girl with a gun …’
A woman’s body is discovered in a lake near the holiday cabins of the wealthy of Los Angeles and she is identified by Bill Chess, one of the cabin owners, as HIS wife. The story moves along speedily and Marlowe soon finds himself mixed up with much adultery, a mal-practising doctor, a bent police detective and several manipulative women.
The bodies mount up. However, needless to say, Marlowe solves the mystery though not without risking his life and taking a beating. Apart from Marlowe himself, whom we get to know quite well, the characters are types rather than fully fleshed-out human beings but with Chandler’s mastery of pace and his snappy dialogue that does not seem to matter too much.
‘ … She was still there. She was lying on the pulled-down twin bed. . . . Her eyes bulged and the whites of them were not white.’
The Lady in the Lake has a clever, complex plot and is both easy and fun to read. The book I bought is a modern edition and contains four of Chandler’s Marlowe stories; I might just read (or re-read maybe) the others later.
[Next: The War Hero]