The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)
This is the fourth novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective, Philip Marlowe. The story begins with Marlowe meeting his client, Derace Kingsley. Kingsley wants Marlowe to find his wife, Crystal Kingsley, who hasn’t been seen by anyone in a month. Mrs. Kingsley was last seen at the mountain cabin the couple owns, and that is where Marlowe begins his investigation. As the story develops, Marlowe once again must make his way through a world where everyone has something to hide, surfaces can be deceiving, and law enforcement is not only ineffective but corrupt. Marlowe continues to be a flawed character and yet, just as Chandler mandated, he is the best man in his world. As is typical in hardboiled detective fiction, the plot is intricate and the disappearance of Mrs. Kingsley opens the door for murder, which Marlowe aims to solve while still protecting his client. The climax of the novel for readers who have caught some of the clues but haven’t fully figured out the resolution to the mystery is both satisfying and surprising. The novel ends a bit abruptly but with one of Marlowe’s characteristic observations that possess multiple meanings.
The first six weeks of my summer vacation were spent teaching a course on classic and hardboiled detective fiction, and so I just recently re-read the first book in the Philip Marlowe series, The Big Sleep. I think that rereading the first book in the series and teaching a class on the genre has definitely impacted my reading of The Lady in the Lake. It adheres to the format and conventions of the hardboiled detective novel—there’s the femme fatale, the corruption of law enforcement, and the alternative forms of justice that the guilty are subject to. But one of the things that makes this particular installment in this series stand out in my mind is that even though Marlowe is still very much the sleuth as loner and is still isolated and alienated from the world in which he lives and works, he’s not completely alone this time. At the beginning of the novel he meets Sheriff Patton who is a source of help to Marlowe and who also holds, if not the exact same, then at least similar ideals of justice, morality, and ethics. He has a personal code just as Marlowe does, and like Marlowe, he doesn’t waver from it while doing the best he can with what he’s got. Also during the course of the investigation he meets Captain Webber, who once again is not the same as Marlowe and who sees Marlowe as a complication to the murder investigation and a dangerous, loose cannon. The two men eventually come to at least respect each other and the struggle of the other to do good in a corrupt world. Like The Big Sleep, Chandler gives us other characters who fall into the same category as Marlowe, and yet, it is still Marlowe who reveals the mystery and in his own (heroic) fashion, brings those who are guilty to justice. Perhaps this is all to say that what I liked about this novel was Marlowe’s interaction with the other “good” men and I also appreciated that while the plot was intricate, it wasn’t as disconnected as some of the other Marlowe novels in that as a reader, I could see what some of the clues were adding up to and how they fit together. This novel is by no means a “puzzle” like classic detective fiction of the Golden Age, but I didn’t feel like I was simply along for the ride as the action reached the climax.
There is something about The Lady in the Lake that makes it feel different from the first three novels in this series, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly what that is. I think it has to do with my sense that the characters in this novel just aren’t as vividly drawn as the characters in previous novels, with Marlowe being the obvious exception. The rest of the characters felt flat and only there to serve specific narrative and plot purposes. If I have one complaint about the novel it is that I would have liked to see some of the other characters given more life. Marlowe is definitely the star and the central focus of the novel (and the series as whole) but it seems that in this novel he has to do all of the heavy lifting without help from the supporting cast. In the final analysis, I would say that I liked The Lady in the Lake and would recommend it to other readers who have read any of the Philip Marlowe novels and/or readers who like early hardboiled detective fiction. I don’t think you have to read the books in order, though I would recommend starting with The Big Sleep so that you can have a better idea of Marlowe’s philosophy, his code of ethics, and what drives him to do what he does.