Sunday, 17 April 2022

Nice use of the subjunctive mood

Farewell, My Lovely (Philip Marlowe, #2) On a warm day at the end of March, LA private detective Philip Marlowe is idly looking at a neon sign for "a dime and dice emporium called Florian's". Another man, who "looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food" looks at the sign too, then enters the building. It wasn't any of Marlowe's business, but he pushed open the doors and looked in too.

So starts Raymond Chandler's second Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely. By the end of Chapter 2, there's a dead body and a mystery to solve.

Published in 1940 the book has been reviewed innumerable times and Chandler's noir fiction is now the subject of academic study. Farewell, My Lovely is reckoned to be one of the writer's best. The character Marlowe tells his story with a detective's eye for detail and a tendency towards black humour, and the writing style is more finely developed than in the first of the series, The Big Sleep.

What surprised me was the inclusion of references to art, literature and grammar. It's something I hadn't expected to find in a story narrated by a hardbitten detective. In Chapter 7 Marlowe is in his office, musing that "They had Rembrandt on the calendar that year, a rather smeary self-portrait due to imperfectly registered colour plates". The detective goes on to describe the image in more detail. A few pages later I laughed out loud when Marlowe questions a potential client about the legitimacy of a job. The "Harvard boy" answers, "I should not have called you, if it were not", and the detective thinks to himelf, "Nice use of the subjunctive mood". Much later, after a nasty beating, Marlowe is described as looking "like Hamlet’s father".

One thing I didn't like was the over-used description of an Indian thug's smell: "Such smelling as the Indian had done before was a mooncast shadow to what he was doing now". It seemed unnecessary to continually reference the man's odour.

Chapter 31 was however genius. Marlowe goes to see the mayor of Bay City and watches as a "shiny black bug with a pink head and pink spots on it crawled slowly along the polished top of Randall's desk and waved a couple of feelers around, as if testing the breeze for a take-off". Throughout the conversation with Randall, Marlowe watches the bug as it falls to the floor, crawls to the skirting board then from one corner to another. At the end of the meeting the detective picks it up in his handkerchief and puts "the pink bug down carefully behind a bush". The bug adds nothing to the plot but contributes a huge amount of depth to Marlowe's character.

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