There are three levels that I interacted with this work. At the surface level is the actual words on the page, including the construction of scenes and visuals, the handling of dialogue and most crucially, ellipsis. There is also the “meaning” of the work – plot, themes, motifs and I guess the underlying statement it makes about the world. And finally there is its interaction with my experiences of trying to simulate its genre through various roleplaying games.
I think that probably the decisive advantage most people give for Chandler over Hammett is his command of the intricacies of writing a good sentence. Chandler has a great eye for the startling image and juxtaposition, elaborating on Hammett’s spare wit. His dialogue is usually sharp and fast paced. Sentences are short, their meaning mostly contained in the subtext and context.
The narration is in the first person, but rather than a Woolf style stream-of-consciousness, Marlowe reads quite conventionally. Sentences that are constructed of a subject, an object and a verb to give it impetus. The first person narration would seem to give you more rather than less access into Marlowe’s mind, but the opposite is true. Marlowe communicates with us as indirectly as possible, using frequent compelling images, self-reflecting “third person” descriptions of minutae.
At first I struggled to understand why some of the dialogue generated the responses it did from those engaged in conversation, until I realized that the crucial non-verbal cues were all masked: Marlowe through dialogue alone is persistently flatly sardonic, hiding the non-verbal cues which could tilt any given statement either way between playful and offensive. The whole design of the writing is governed by an appreciation and use of ellipsis, with vivid imagery as a distraction from how hollow Marlowe’s world is.
The plot circumscribed by the events that Marlowe shares is doggerel. Arbitrary things happen at arbitrary times, for reasons which are explained and yet never really quite clear. In the hazy world of murder and counter-murder, conspiracies and lies, nothing can ever really have the firm foundation of a sensible cause or effect. Marlowe drifts through his investigation, beaten down at times, uplifted at times. Never letting us in on what he knows, or suspects.
In his canonical essay, The Simple Art Of Murder, Chandler talks at length about his disdain for the formal detective story, where bodies are created as part of an elaborate puzzle. He argues that murder should always be for a reason, with the tools at hand. Murder, he argues, is never that complex. But the plot of Farewell my lovely is positively labyrinthine, and by the end it felt like nothing but a formal detective story without a sense of decorum. To be fair, he wrote the essay later.
Compared to the tightly controlled Maltese Falcon, this is a journeyman work of smoke and mirrors. Chandler: no Hammett. At least, not yet.
And what do we think it all means? Christie et al have as a major theme the vindication of love. Love can cause heinous acts, but it’s far more likely to be jealousy and cruelty; the usual pattern in any Christie-esque murder is for the ultimate removal of obstacles to love: the innocent couple are permitted happiness. The detective, of course, is aloof; essentially devoid of human emotion or experience. People are a puzzle to him: one for which he has the box and the time to assemble correctly.
Chandler allows Marlowe his dalliances, but there is no joyful reunion for the innocents at the end. Actually, there are no real innocents to be reunited. Love in Chandler is ultimately the source of the conflict, and the lovers are all punished with death or bereavement, while the hard-boiled take it or leave it, emerging whole. Or at least, unbroken.
Marlowe is also far more determined, far more violent, and far less magnanimous than his English Formal equivalents. He owns a gun, which he uses. He drinks, he fights, he fucks. He is, above all, confrontational and not confessional. Nobody tells Marlowe anything because he reminds them of a dear paternal uncle or great aunt. He does not disarm with his foreignness: he is a local. He does receive a number of occasions of fortuitous unsolicited aid, which he regards always with suspicion and does his best to reject.
The world-vision is therefore far darker than for Christie: there is no essential goodness to be had, or relied upon. This renders Marlowe, despite his flaws, all the more angelic, as the one good man prepared to beat all in the pursuit of some kind of justice. When you’re Poirot, in a world that makes sense and a country that’s basically good, goodness is all that’s natural. Marlowe however, is constantly in danger of slipping a bit and becoming part of the problems.
I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow analysis of how this game would look to a group playing Dirty Secrets, but my general thought is that it would look pretty similar to the mechanics.
The pure obstruction advocated in the rulebook is present in the source here, as Marlowe is simply beaten down again and again without learning anything, with no new facts. Those would be scenes where he got pwned at Liar’s dice. And there are scenes were information seems to just be delivered up on a silver plate: fact after fact given over without an ounce of effort. I guess the investigator is winning those exchanges. There are a few in between, and a lot more inconclusive scenes of sizing up. Revelation or reflection scenes in all likelihood.
I said just above that the impression you get at the end of the novel is as a formal detective novel without decorum, but I think this structural analogy gives the lie to that assessment. The characters in Christie are part of a formal system, mechanically grinding their way to story completion. Chandler’s are aleatory, clinging on to the thread of action as best they can, dumped out in into a post-rationalized “solution” just grateful to have survived.
And people say horror is bleak.