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Here’s a New Year’s resolution you probably haven’t thought about — read a book by Raymond Chandler. It will be well worth the effort. Especially if the book you choose is Farewell, My Lovely, his 1940 masterpiece that is overflowing with so much scintillating prose that it bears reading over and over again. Which is what I do. And rarely, if ever, does it let me down. To the contrary, it nearly always uplifts my spirits. And, without exception, it always tickles the part of my psyche that loves a well-rendered metaphor — the kind that enables you to see some ravishing image both clearly and compellingly in your mind’s eye. The book’s protagonist is Philip Marlowe, an irreverent and insolent Los Angeles private eye. He narrates the story from the first-person point of view — a narrative voice that Chandler mastered as completely as Tiger Woods has mastered the game of golf. Marlowe is the star and narrator of all seven of the novels completed by Chandler, who lived from 1888 to 1959. That Farewell, My Lovely is a glorious triumph of the imagination has less to do with its plot, which is at times creaky, than with its superlative language. With seemingly little effort, Chandler throws out one brilliant metaphor after another — turns of phrases that are breathtaking in their originality, cleverness, and insight. And it’s really the insights that elevate this book from being merely a well-written, entertaining detective story to a substantial work of literature. It has the capacity to teach us some valuable lessons. Like how to observe people. And how to observe the world around us. We learn these lessons by osmosis, thanks to being in the presence of Marlowe’s intoxicating thoughts. This is one way in which the first-person point of view pays off huge dividends. We get to see him — or hear him — think about people as he sizes them up. And the comments he makes in doing so are not only incredibly perceptive but can also be absolutely withering. His words can dissolve the facade off a phony person faster than the most powerful turpentine applied to a patch of wet paint. And thanks to being present as he does it, the reader begins to develop this ability for himself or herself. Consider Marlowe’s impressions upon first meeting a corrupt psychic named Jules Amthor: “His skin was as fresh as a rose petal. He might have been thirty-five or sixty-five. He was ageless. His hair was brushed straight back from as good a profile as Barrymore ever had. His eyebrows were coal black, like the walls and ceiling and floor. His eyes were deep, far too deep. They were the depthless drugged eyes of the somnambulist. . . . And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.” At another point, Marlowe is pondering the kind of tasks that Amthor, who calls himself a “psychic consultant,” is engaged in. “Give him enough time and pay him enough money and he’ll cure anything from a jaded husband to a grasshopper plague. He would be an expert in frustrated love affairs, women who slept alone and didn’t like it, wandering boys and girls who didn’t write home, sell the property now or hold it for another year, will this part hurt me with my public or make me seem more versatile? Men would sneak in on him too, big strong guys that roared like lions around their offices and were all cold mush under their vests.” When Marlowe arrives at a millionaire’s estate, he notes that the ritzy oceanside neighborhood contains “a special brand of sunshine, very quiet, put up in noise-proof containers just for the upper classes.” Here is how he describes the 60-year-old tycoon’s thirtysomething wife: “Her hair was of the gold of old paintings and had been fussed with just enough but not too much. She had a full set of curves which nobody had been able to improve on. The dress was rather plain except for a clasp of diamonds at the throat. Her hands were not small, but they had shape, and the nails were the usual jarring note — almost magenta. She was giving me one of her smiles. She looked as if she smiled easily, but her eyes had a still look, as if they thought slowly and carefully. And her mouth was sensual.” TARANTULA ON ANGEL FOOD A very large man named Moose Malloy, who is looking up at the windows of a building, is described as having “a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty.” He’s dressed in a garish outfit that includes a borsalino hat. “There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” We also meet a woman in her late 20s who is said to have a face that is pretty, “but not so pretty that you would have to wear brass knuckles every time you took it out.” Another woman, who is the corrupt psychic’s secretary, has “a dry tight smile that would turn to powder if you touched it” and is wearing “a tight dress that fitted her like a mermaid’s skin and showed that she had a good figure if you like them four sizes bigger below the waist.” At one point, Chandler shows how Marlowe can use his prodigious observational skills while looking at a photograph. It’s a showbiz shot of a woman in a Pierrot costume with a conical hat. “The face was in profile but the visible eye seemed to have gaiety in it. I wouldn’t say the face was lovely and unspoiled, I’m not that good at faces. But it was pretty. People had been nice to that face, or nice enough for their circle. Yet it was a very ordinary face and its prettiness was strictly assembly line. You would see a dozen faces like it on a city block in the noon hour.” Since Marlowe has such a well-trained eye, it’s not surprising that he would have strong opinions when it comes to art. We get a sense of his artistic taste during a conversation that takes place in the house of a dandified man named Lindsay Marriott, who is hiring him for a job: I lit a Camel, blew smoke through my nose and looked at a piece of black shiny metal on a stand. It showed a full, smooth curve with a shallow fold in it and two protuberances on the curve. I stared at it. Marriot saw me staring. “An interesting bit,” he said negligently. “I picked it up just the other day. Asta Dial’s ‘Spirit of Dawn.’” “I thought it was Klopstein’s ‘Two Warts on a Fanny,’” I said. Mr. Lindsay Marriot’s face looked as if he had swallowed a bee. He smoothed it out with an effort. “You have a peculiar sense of humor,” he said. “Not peculiar,” I said. “Just uninhibited.” As all of these quotations make clear, Marlowe is an entertaining and witty guide to be around. In fact, he has such an engaging personality that after finishing the book, the reader starts to miss his presence. Among Chandler’s panoply of talents was the knack for knowing how to leave us hungry for more of that beautifully crafted prose that can make us laugh and think at the same time.
Murray White, a longtime contributor to Legal Times , may be reached at [email protected].

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