There is a subtly different feel about Chandler’s third novel. All the usual elements are there, and the writing is just as good, but behind the hard face we catch a glimpse of sadness. This may be a reflection of the author’s struggle with the book (or the struggle with the book may have been because he was determined to deepen the character of Marlowe). Either way, we get a novel that is as deserving of praise as anything else he wrote.
What starts as a search for a missing person (and a missing rare coin) soon develops into the usual complexities that arise from blackmail and murder. Along the way, we catch glimpses of the sterile lives of a wealthy family and have the opportunity to compare and contrast that with the sterile lives of the poor. Marlowe is tetchier. At first this makes him seem a less sympathetic character; but it becomes clear why he is like this, because it becomes clear that the focus of the novel is not the story, but one of the apparently minor characters.
It wouldn’t be possible to discuss this without unravelling the whole story. Suffice it to say, it would be enough to disgust anyone, especially as we see the consequences of one person’s determination to protect their good name.
All this is conveyed by the story, by atmosphere, and by the characters. The more subdued Marlowe with a deepening inner anger sits at the heart of it. The writing and structure is more relaxed, thus contrasting with the tightly wound Marlowe. And despite Chandler’s increasing frustration with the novel and a growing personal restlessness (or maybe because of it), he takes the form a step further and proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that ‘genre’ writing can be every bit as intelligent and insightful as ‘literary’ writing.