I have loved Noir movies since I was a young girl but had never read any of the books these movies are based on until my book club decided to read The Big Sleep. I sure didn’t know what I had been missing! This is Part One of my Noir reviews.
First Up: The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler
I reviewed The Big Sleep in an earlier review but I can’t do another Noir review without mentioning it.
Raymond Chandler had a huge stylistic influence on American literature. He, Dashiell Hammett and a few other writers created the “hard boiled detective novel” as we know it today.
Chandler was an oil executive who lost his job during the Depression and, at the age of forty-four, started writing hard boiled detective novels. He wrote short stories for various crime magazines and in 1939 published The Big Sleep. His protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is a tough talking private eye with a stoic demeanor and a sharp tongue. He loves cigarettes, liquor and has a strict moral compass that saves him in many situations, especially when women are involved. There are seven Philip Marlowe books but the last few were written by other authors after Chandler died.The opening paragraph sets the scene:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder blue suit, with a dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
What a wonderful opening paragraph!
The story begins when Marlowe is called to a mansion owned by General Sternwood. The General wants to hire him to see who is behind the blackmail threats he has been receiving about his younger daughter, Carmen. The General is very ill, wheel chair bound and spends his time in a steamy orchid greenhouse because of his health. He has two grown daughters, Vivian and Carmen and they are both out of control. He mentions that Vivian is married to Rusty Regan but his son-in-law is missing. He has supposedly run off with the wife of Eddie Mars, who owns a casino where Vivian can frequently be found. The General is fond of Rusty and wants to find him but he does not hire Marlowe to look for him.
Vivian is a femme fatale with a gambling problem who doesn’t like “masterful” men. Marlowe makes a great observation when he meets her: I sat down on the edge of a deep, soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She wants to know if her father has hired him to find her husband, Rusty. Throughout the book everyone wants to know if Marlowe is looking for Rusty Regan.
Carmen, the younger sister, has become involved with a pornographer who is blackmailing her father, General Sternwood. Something isn’t right with Carmen and Marlowe is trying to figure her out. When Marlowe begins investigating, he finds out more than he expected.
The plot is complicated with lots of symbolism and characters but the writing is unforgettable. Chandler transports the reader to 1939 Hollywood with bootleggers, pornographers, crooked cops and steamy rain soaked streets Some of the dialog isn’t politically correct and some of the words might be difficult to understand in our current time but this is one terrific book!
Farewell, My Lovely
In this second Philip Marlowe novel, that Chandler considered to be his best, we once again find Marlowe in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he is trying to find the missing husband of a client, he sees a huge man, Moose Malloy, about to enter a bar that is for blacks only in 1934 LA.
Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
Malloy has just gotten out of prison after eight years and he is looking for his lost love, Velma. Velma used to sing at this bar and he is desperate to find her. Marlowe tries unsuccessfully to stop him from entering the bar and he is soon coerced into finding Velma for Moose. Soon there is a shooting and Moose is on the run. When another client hires Marlowe to find some stolen jewels, there is another murder and Marlowe is in the thick of it as he becomes a target. His search for Velma gets him into all kinds of trouble.
Once again we have vintage Chandler with a wonderful setting on the streets of 1940’s LA, crooked cops, a blonde, It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window, a murdering gang of jewel thieves, drugs, Marlowe’s kidnapping, I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
Chandler’s plots can be confusing but his language is what makes his books so wonderful.
This is the second Chandler novel about Philip Marlowe that I have read and it won’t be the last.
I listened to both of them on audio and the narrator, Ray Porter, was perfect.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
by James M. Cain
This short novel published in 1934 is a prime example of classic noir. Frank Chambers jumps off a truck at a run down diner in California. He is always one step ahead of the law and drifts from town to town.That is until he sees Cora, the sexy wife of Nick Papadakis, who owns the diner. Nick is a brutish boor and is no match for the sexy Cora. Frank is immediately attracted to Cora. Nick, a Greek Immigrant who is seeking the American Dream, sees a young man who can help him in the diner and he hires Frank on the spot. Cora sees Nick as her ticket out of her horrible life. It isn’t long before Frank and Cora are involved in a steamy affair and decide to kill Nick. Although Frank is a big-time loser, he would never have thought of killing Nick. He wants Cora to run away with him but Cora wants him dead and she wants the diner. As in another Cain novel I have read, the woman gets her lover to commit murder, even if he has never been the murdering type. Oh, the power of women!
When this book was first published it was banned in Boston and other cities because of the sex and violence in it. I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.
There are twists and turns, a trial, and an ending that might surprise you. The title of this book is puzzling to many because there is no postman or ringing, so it is left to individual interpretation. It is said that Albert Camus used this book as inspiration for The Stranger. I have seen two movie adaptations. The first was with Lana Turner and John Garfield and the second one has Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. both are good.
I listened to this book on audio and Stanley Tucci really brought the story to life.
by Jame M. Cain
Insurance agent, Walter Huff, goes to a home in the Hollywood Hills to do a renewal on an insurance policy for wealthy Mr. Nirdinger. While he is there, he meets Phyllis, Mr. Nirdinger’s beautiful, younger wife. Next thing you know, Phyllis is contacting him and asking questions about the policy that would be a red flag for most insurance agents. Not Walter, because he is completely enamored with Phyllis. Soon they are concocting a murder plan to get rid of poor Mr. Nirdinger, on a train, so that they can split the insurance money and be together. The story is told by Walter in the first person as he looks back on what has happened.
I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.
Cain likes to take ordinary men and put them in a situation where they will kill for a lover, even if they have just met the beautiful woman. I have found that to be a little bit difficult to believe in the Cain novels I have read, so far. The story line is good and the plot has twists and turns, so this is a worthwhile read. Cain is an important noir writer, so if you like noir, you shouldn’t miss him.
I listened to this book on audio and the narrator, James Naughton, was very good.
Loved the movie with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as Walter. Yes, that Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons, only now he is playing a killer! Great casting.