Farewell, My Lovely
By Raymond Chandler
When Raymond Chandler is called to mind, people often point to his unique use of description — he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food, etc. I understand why it gets so much attention, after all, when prose can be described as ‘Chandleresque,’ it makes sense. But I think the fact that his writing is so witty can actually mask its real underlying quality and the less obvious similes can be overlooked. There’s a simple genius to gun barrels being likened to the mouth of 2nd Street Bridge, or the eyes of a woman compared to strange sins. But as a kid, what I really fell in love with were his quieter, more reflective passages — particularly those blunt yet melancholic monographs of Los Angeles:
‘When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed.’
Picking just one title is no easy task but, for me, when it comes to the mystery genre, Farewell, My Lovely is the classic of classics — seediness, seduction, scores — it’s all there. If the planet were suddenly doomed tomorrow and little time capsules were sent into space to preserve human culture, this book would get my vote for the one marked crime fiction.