The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Lady in the Lake The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

I’ve written here before about my love of pulpy, gritty noir fiction. There’s Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Edward Anderson’s bleak look at life on the lam and, my favourite, Raymond Chandler’s series of LA novels.

Later in his life, Chandler’s writings got bitter. A while back, I covered The Little Sister, where Chandler’s resentment towards Hollywood and Los Angeles boils over in a famous section about neon lights. But that was still to come: during the early 1940s, Chandler was still working as a scriptwriter and banging out detective fiction. Released in 1943, The Lady in the Lake is a good example of mid-career Chandler, a noir that’s blunt and brutal, but never veers over into outright cynicism.

It opens in the offices of a perfume magnate Derace Kingsley. His wife’s gone missing and he wants Marlowe to try to track her down. It’s an unusual circumstance; Kingsley professes no great attraction to his wife, who comes and goes as she pleases with whomever she wants. And people say poly relationships are a new thing! Soon Marlowe’s up by San Bernardino and caught up in a death there and dealing with crooked cops, jealous ex-lovers and a sheriff running for re-election.

As far as Marlowe stories go, this one is less angry than The Little Sister. He’s cynical towards the establishment, but he makes even the crooked cops sympathetic. Likewise, it doesn’t drip with smartass cool the way The Big Sleep does: by now, Marlowe’s set in his ways, lipping off to cops, drinking all the time and driving at high speeds. It’s starting to feel like an act, although I’ll admit enjoying scenes like this:

“Degarmo lunged past the desk towards an open elevator beside which an old man sat on a stool waiting for a customer. The clerk snapped at Degarmo’s back like a terrier.
“One moment please. Whom did you wish to see?”
Degarmo spun around on his heel and looked at me wonderingly. “Did he say whom?”
“Yeah but don’t hit him,” I said. “There is such a word.”

Another thing I didn’t like about this one was how telegraphed it felt at times. The big twist is heavily foreshadowed pretty early in the book on two different occasions, stripping some of the suspense from Marlowe’s big monologue at the end. And elsewhere, things get pretty corny: there’s a part where one man shoots a handgun out of someone’s hand, like in an old western.

Rating: 6/10. Sure, Lady in the Lake isn’t Chandler’s best, but it’s still a nice slice of vintage noir: raw, ornery and just about every time the action slows down, someone whips out a gun. Like pizza, even an okay Chandler is still pretty good!


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