The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler’s fourth Philip Marlowe novel, was written just a few months after Pearl Harbor (published in 1943) but there are surprisingly few references to the war in it. Perhaps this reflects Chandler’s take on how the war affected Americans of the day – that, unless a son or husband was in the military, everyday life went on pretty much as normal. Or maybe he simply did not want to clutter up his murder mystery with too many references to such a catastrophic world event. Whatever his reasoning may have been, The Lady in the Lake still holds up well when compared to most of the crime fiction being produced today.
Philip Marlowe has been hired by Derace Kingsley, a perfume company tycoon, to find his missing wife, a woman Kingsley believes has run off to Mexico with her lover. As a place to begin his search, Kingsley points Marlowe in the direction of the couple’s remote getaway cabin located in the California hills on Little Fawn Lake. While being shown around the site, Chandler and the property’s caretaker, Bill Chess, spot a woman’s body in the shallow waters of the lake. That is when Chandler realizes that he is dealing with something much more complicated than the search for a man’s runaway wife.
Raymond Chandler is deservedly well known for his noir fiction and The Lady in the Lake is representative of that style. The novel is filled with strong characters bordering on what have become almost stereotypical types in noir fiction, all of whom play their parts well but offer little in the way of surprises. Derace Kingsley is the hard headed businessman who has little time or respect for those who do not play in his league. Al Degarmo is a brutal cop so confident and high on himself because of his unchallenged power on the streets that he has no fear of ever being exposed. On the other hand, two of Chandler’s characters do have a nice feel of authenticity about them: Bill Chess, the cantankerous caretaker at Little Fawn Lake, and Sheriff Jim Patton whose jurisdiction includes the lake area. Patton, in particular, is one of those memorable characters with whom most readers will easily identify.
The flaw in The Lady in the Lake appears late. As the book nears its finish, Chandler’s hardcore style morphs into what more resembles the Agatha Christie school of cozy detective fiction endings. Trapped in a small cabin with the person he believes is a coldblooded killer and the lawman that can make the arrest, Marlowe begins a monologue during which he notes and eliminates, one-by-one, the possible suspects. Marlowe does manage to spook his suspect into a fatal mistake, but it is always a letdown to the reader to have so much action take place “offstage.”
The Lady in the Lake may not be considered classic Chandler in the way that The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely are, but Chandler fans will not want to miss it.
Rated at: 4.0