Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940)

‘For a private dick you certainly have a wandering kind of mind.’ (Chapter 24)

Chandler’s second novel is significantly longer than the first – 41 chapters agaist 32, 200 pages of dense type compared to 160. More happens and a lot of that more is Marlowe getting beaten up: he is knocked unconscious twice, strangled, checked in by unfriendly police to a private hospital where he is pumped full of dope (heroine?), threatened, shot at and makes a number of hair-raising escapes.

There’s the familiar but ever-wonderful mix of smart-arse similes and tough-guy attitude.

Tough guy

I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face.

He lay smeared to the ground, on his back, at the base of a bush, in that bag-of-clothes position that always means the same thing. (Ch 11)

He had a battered face that looked like it had been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. It was scarred, flattened, thickened, chequered and welted. It was a face that had nothing to fear. Everything had been done to it that anyone could think of. (Ch 2)

He had a gun in the drawer of course. They always have a gun in the drawer and they always get it too late, if they get it at all. (Ch 27)

This attitude we take for granted. For the seventy years since Chandler’s debut crime fiction, movies and TV have swamped us with images of tough guys, real men, American heroes. The attitude isn’t so new or impressive. What remains immensely impressive is the style and the wit.


The text is awash with plenty of florid comparisons, including probably the most-quoted one from any of  his works:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula  on a slice of angel food. (Chapter 1)

The big man purred softly, like four tigers after dinner. (Ch 1)

The handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly. (Ch 8)

The smile fell off his face like a soiled rag. (Ch 27)

Spliced plots

But mostly this greater length gives Chandler an opportunity to try out more and a lot of this more is more plotting, as a series of apparent coincidences intertwine into a really knotty sequence of complications. It explains a lot to learn that Chandler created his novels by splicing together the short stories he’d been writing since the early 30s; Farewell, My Lovely splices together three completely unrelated stories (Try the Girl, Mandarin’s Jade and The Man Who Liked Dogs) and then has fun trying to paper over the joins. The final chapter is devoted to Marlowe and his girl talking through the motives of everyone involved so that they make sense. I’m not sure they ever do. Still:

a) Improbably convoluted plots are a feature of ‘pulp’ fiction (as of opera). Pulp means crude. Everything is cranked up. Broads are in peril. Bad guys reach for their guns. The cops are corrupt. Rich guys can buy anything. Entire cities are owned by hoods. Jewels. Drugs. And, in the same way, plots are garish and vivid, throwing up corpses and gambling dens and spooky private clinics and car chases and gorgeous blondes coolly smoking and lots and lots of scenes in police stations.

b) Not only are the plots improbably convoluted, but they know they are improbably convoluted. The people caught up in them point it out. When Harry Jones is leading up to the revelation he hopes Marlowe will pays him 2 Cs for, he himself says ‘Act One’ and then recounts the build-up; then announces ‘Act Two’ for the important sequence of events. In a tell-tale moment in The Big Sleep, when Marlowe has to find an isolated house near an isolated garage out on some canyon road, Chandler simply has his car get a puncture just around the right place, and remarks, ‘Fate stage-managed the whole thing. (Ch 27)’ No. the author stage-managed the whole thing. There are a number of references to Shakespeare in FML: ‘My God,’ she wailed. ‘You look like Hamlet’s father.’ (Ch 27)

c) In the penultimate chapter (40) Marlowe and his squeeze, Anne Riordan, settle down with a scotch apiece to try and piece together the multiple events and disconnected fragments which make up the narrative we’ve just read. They start by parodying the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ set-up, joking that they ought to be at a dinner party in a country house, surrounded by servants and an odd assortment of guests one of whom is the murderer, until the butler faints and all is revealed!! Except, says Marlow:

‘It’s not that kind of story. It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood.’

Except, you know what? It is lithe and clever, very lithe and very clever, the three stories like three snakes which dance around each other, the style very highly-wrought and knowing. And also – not that full of blood. In this long novel five people are murdered (the manager of Jovian’s, Marriott, Mrs Jovian, Moose, the cop in the final chapter) only one of which you actually see, the other four being static descriptions of corpses or remote accounts. So: light on actual murder scenes. Vastly more effort is put by Chandler into his stylish similes and longer, poetic descriptions, and by the character Marlowe into his snappy banter, sometimes so much effort it’s difficult to follow what he and the hood or cop or blonde are talking about.

Style over plot

So it comes as no surprise at all to read this quote from RC:

‘My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn’t matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style.’

It gives the author’s imprimatur to what is clear already from sentence after wonderful sentence throughout the text. Chandler isn’t about plot or even attitude, which is the dime-a-dozen pupl tough guy attitude: Chandler is about style.

The most often noted aspect of his style is the bottomless well of smart analogies:


The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk. (Ch 3)

The voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed. (Ch 5)

The coffee shop smell was strong enough to build a garage on. (Ch 13)

To be fair, not all of them work;  sometimes they can come over as cheap and contrived:


Then suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully. (Ch 5)

Thick cunning played on her face, had no fun there and went somewhere else. (Ch 5)

He came back softly, holding his pork pie under his arm, debonair as a French count in a college play. (Ch 30)

But other times they can be eerily accurate, saying something deeper than the immediate occasion demands, suggesting the ‘literary surplus’ which I referred to in my previous post, that extra something over and above what the situation requires:


Her eyes were a dead grey, like half-frozen water. (Ch 40)

The motor sounded like a small car. It had that contented sound that comes with moisture in the air. (Ch 10)

The boat slid up and down the swell now with a sinister smoothness, like a cobra dancing. (Ch 35)

I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of the office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk. (Ch 14)

Stream of consciousness

But it also gives Chandler the opportunity to do more ‘literature’. Not once but several times Chandler treats us to quite a few pages of stream-of-consciousness. Was this ‘invented’ by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf as my teachers told me? Whatever, by 1940 it was common currency, available as a technique to anyone who felt the need. After he has been knocked unconscious in some deserted canyon, chapter 10 opens with a tour de force of internal monologue as Marlowe, confused and disorientated, slowly regains consciousness:

I put my right hand back on the ground and took the left off and swivelled it around until I could see my watch. The illuminated dial showed 10.56, as nearly as I could focus on it. The call had come at 10.08. Marriott had talked maybe two minutes. Another four had got us out of the house. Time passes very slowly when you are actually doing something. I mean, you can go through a lot of movements in very few minutes. Is that what I mean? What the hell do I care what I mean? Okey, better men than me have meant less.

OK it’s not Virginia Woolf. It’s more Chandler having fun performing variations on the usually sober linear narrative. Exactly the same happens when he wakes up 50 pages later having been incarcerated in a private clinic and injected with heroine – his disorientation allows Chandler to try out more rhetorical tricks and we can enjoy a master of English prose performing like a seal at the zoo:

Time passed again. I don’t know how long. I had no watch. They don’t make that kind of time in watches anyway… Half an hour of walking and my knees were shaking but my head was clear… I walked back to the bed. It was a lovely bed. It was made of rose-leaves. It was the most beautiful bed in the world. They had got it from Carole Lombard. It was too soft for her. It was worth the rest of my life to lie down in it for two minutes. Beautiful soft bed, beautiful sleep, beautiful eyes closing and lashes falling and the gentle sound of breathing and darkness and rest sunk in deep pillows… (Ch 25)

Part of what makes the books so enjoyable is sharing Chandler’s sense of playfulness. Despite a few corpses these are essentially comic books where the detective comes through just fine and all the loose ends are sown up but the comedy is in the knowing, rich, muscular, always humorous prose. There are numerous passages of pure descriptive pleasure:

I walked on slowly. Beyond the electroliers, beyond the beat and toot of the small sidewalk cars, beyond the smell of hot fat and popcorn and the shrill children and the barkers in the peep shows, beyond everything but the smell of the ocean and the suddenly clear line of the shore and the creaming fall of the waves into the pebbled spume. I walked almost alone now. The noises died behind me, the hot dishonest light became a fumbling glare. Then the lightless finger of a black pier jutted seaward into the dark. This would be the one. I turned to go onto it. (Ch 36)

And then – in among all the tough guy attitude and hard-cop banter and florid similes and blondes and gats and dope – there is something else peeking through. Something deeper, which finds expression in simple words arranged into haunting rhythms, something I think we’re justified in calling poetry.

It got darker. I thought; and thought in my mind moved with a kind of sluggish stealthiness, as if it was being watched by bitter and sadistic eyes. (Ch 34)

Related links

Other Raymond Chandler reviews

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