Philip Marlow is a hard boiled private detective in Los Angeles who could use a case. He could use a lot of things, but he’d settle for a case. Until one morning when a plain, proper girl from Manhattan Kansas walks into his office asking him to find her brother.
This is a great, pulpy mystery set in Hollywood in the 40s. Chandler is well into his groove with this one and Philip Marlow gets dragged through hell before he can untie all the knots these two siblings have snarled up for him. It isn’t long before looking for this brother drags mobsters, movie starlets, disgraced doctors, and dirty cops into the mix and Marlow is not so sure he’s going to be able to talk his way out of this one. All the while he knows the little sister, Orfamay Quest, isn’t telling him everything she knows.
Throughout the novel you can see Chandler’s disdain for a lot of the trappings and ego infused in Hollywood and the studio system, which he was working for at the time. Agents are spoiled, arrogant men who have secretaries put cool cloths on their foreheads during meetings and swing Malacca canes around inside their enormous offices. Studio owners let their dogs pee on the legs of their desks. Mobsters own the restaurants where all of these people go to be “seen,” but only if the mobsters can fit in with their crowd. It’s all artifice.
This book is also a product of it’s time. Pulp novels of the 40s is not the place to go for diversity and broad mindedness, though Chandler is better than most in this regard. Especially when it comes to women, while he isn’t what you would call a feminist, his women are quite intelligent and if anything use societal expectations to get what they want, rather than something to blindly follow. That said, you don’t read Raymond Chandler for a broad minded social outlook. You don’t even really read them for the plots or the characters. You read Chandler for passages like this:
I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed ’em and throw ’em out. Lots of business. We can’t bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They’re just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.
I paid off and stopped in a bar to drop a brandy on top of the New York cut. Why New York, I thought. It was Detroit where they made machine tools. I stepped out into the night air that nobody had yet found out how to option. But a lot of people were probably trying. They’d get around to it.
He really is the master of scene and mood description. I love reading his books for stuff like what’s above. Essentially, these books can be a lot of fun, but they really should be treated like sugar, not protein and fiber. I really don’t think the author would have disagreed with that.
Chandler was born on 23 July, 1888, so I am using this as my Birthday square.