Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
This novel, written in 1953 and featuring Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe, shows why Chandler is thought to be one of the best mystery writers of all time. Like The Big Sleep, its plot is more complex than I care to describe here, the problem being that if I omit one element, the story doesn’t make sense. Instead, I refer the reader to an excellent summary in Wikipedia.
The plot is carefully crafted, with a surprise ending that is hinted at sufficiently for you to refrain from calling “foul,” but subtle enough that your are unlikely to have sniffed it out. That in itself makes the book worth reading.
However, I enjoyed it the most for the insights it gave into the general basic assumptions readers must have had in the early 1950’s. For one thing, the Escobedo and Miranda cases had not yet been decided by the Supreme Court, and so suspects not only were not warned of their right to an attorney, they didn’t even have that right until trial. Consequently, the lawful behavior of the police would turn the stomach of a modern civil rights activist. Also, it should be noted that the Los Angeles Police Department, featured prominently in this book, had a reputation for being particularly tough on suspected “perps.”
Another aspect of the 1950’s was that nearly everyone smoked. Philip Marlowe, the protagonist, is constantly lighting up either a cigarette of his pipe. But then, so is everyone else.
In addition, all Hispanics (a term that had not yet gained purchase) were “Mexicans.” One of the key characters proclaims he is “Chileano,” but all the “gringos” refer to him as a Mexican. Even worse, the nightmare of nightmares for an attractive white woman is to be chased by a “big buck Negro with a butcher knife.”
Finally, it is instructive to see how much price inflation has taken place since 1953, when a can of shaving cream cost 15 cents; $2 was a huge tip in a restaurant and 50 cents was more than adequate; $200 was thought to be an extremely generous retainer for a time consuming job; and a Bel Aire mansion sold for $90,000. Oh, to have my current bank account in 1953.
Evaluation: It’s entertaining to go back and read an old genre classic. Sometimes they can seem too dated, but this one was worth it.
Published originally in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin, 1953