Second books, they say (whoever ‘they’ may be), can be a problem. Chandler either never heard this or didn’t care. He has simply pushed forward a step or twelve and improved on his already superb work.
Although this is a crime novel with a wickedly simple tale spun into complexity by everyone protecting their own little empires of crime; it is so much more. I will put that again. So. Much. More. It is packed with social observation (on which Chandler does not comment – he has no need) of an America that many would have us believe is a thing of the past. It isn’t. Corruption, casual and appalling racism, crime, and the existence of a social underclass are painted with vivid colours.
Much of this is in the detail. Chandler doesn’t give us a lecture, he never wavers from telling us a story, but he does shine a bright light into some very shady corners. As always, much of this derives from character and setting. And through it all are threads that draw all the vignettes together into a larger tapestry. Moments like Marlowe’s careful capture of a beetle in an office and its later release on a bush contrast starkly with the casual killing of two spiders by a policeman; moments of atmosphere that are universal and particular at the same time (especially the weather eye kept on the fog or the momentary savouring of the smell of home).
And from this we get not only a sharply observed slice of social history, but we get a great story (which still reveals detail after many readings), and one of the great tragic characters of fiction for whilst Malloy may not have the intellect of a Hamlet or Lear, his course to destruction is marked from the moment he first appears.
Whilst it could be argued that The Long Goodbye is technically more competent and thus a better novel, it doesn’t have the raw edge and energy of Farewell, My Lovely. And both stand shoulder to shoulder with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. If you never read any other American crime novel because the genre does not appeal, at least make the effort to read these three.