Friday, June 12, 2015

Philip Marlowe Searches for the Long-Lost Little Velma

It's impossible to think of anything that might be remotely fresh and interesting to say about this book. It's a classic of crime fiction; it was first published in 1940, and it's been reviewed thousands of times, mostly by people far more competent than I.

Suffice it to say that this is the second full-length novel featuring Los Angeles detective Philip Marlowe, following The Big Sleep, which had been published in 1939. Marlowe was the prototype for all the tough, wise-cracking P.I.s that would follow, and Chandler was really the first crime fiction writer to fully exploit the setting of Los Angeles. Scores of writers have followed in his footsteps, but very few have succeeded as well as Chandler did.

As the book opens, Marlowe is searching for a missing husband when he encounters a mountain of a man named Moose Malloy who is staring up at a bar above the barber shop where Marlowe had hoped to find the aforementioned missing husband. Malloy, fresh out of prison after an eight-year stretch, is looking for his lost love, Velma. Malloy hasn't heard from Velma in all of that time, but that has not quenched his affections for the woman who used to work in the bar.

Eight years is a long time, and in the interim, the bar, which used to be a white establishment, has now become an African-American one, although in 1940, no one would have described the place quite that politely. Well, one thing leads to another and Malloy drags Marlowe up the stairs and begins demanding answers from the people in the bar who, not surprisingly, have never heard of Velma.

Malloy winds up killing someone in the bar and takes off, leaving Marlowe to explain things to the cops. From that point on, Marlowe is entangled in Malloy's search. As a sideline, he also takes a job body guarding a guy who is trying to exchange cash for a valuable jade necklace that was stolen from a friend.

Neither job is simple and neither turns out very well, and before long, Marlowe is up to his neck in trouble with the cops and a whole lot of other people as well. Before it's all over, he'll be beat up, doped up, pushed around, and lied to, but it's all in the nature of the job.

The plot really doesn't make a lot of sense, but nobody reads Chandler for the plot. The book is beautifully written with one great line following another. Through Marlowe, Chandler rolls back the curtain and exposes the seamy side of pre-war L.A. It's not a pretty sight, and you sometimes get the impression that Marlowe might be the only honest, decent man in the state.

The Big Sleep may be one of the greatest crime novels ever written, and it's an impossible act to follow, even for Raymond Chandler. I like this book a lot, but I don't think it's quite on a par with the first book in the series. A solid 4.5 stars for me.

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