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THE LADY IN THE LAKE is one of Raymond Chandler's weaker Philip Marlowe novels, if not the weakest. (I say "weakest" as opposed to "worst," because, to paraphrase the cliche, reading Chandler is a bit like sex: Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.) But that's just it. It's not that this is a bad read by any stretch - it's head and shoulders above the best mysteries taking up space on the bestseller lists, and most of the mysteries ever published. But, because this is Chandler, it's held to a higher standard than disposable airline reads, and by that yardstick, it falls short.
The story of this (the first Marlowe novel written after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor), like all in the series, starts simply enough: Our Hero is hired by a wealthy businessman to find his missing wife. And like all Marlowe stories, the case soon becomes much more complicated, leading Marlowe on a trail of twists and turns through some of the darkest shadows of his world until, at last, all is revealed.
It is a fun trail to follow for the reader, if not always for Marlowe. Still, it doesn't match the intense intricacy of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY nor the lurid seductiveness of THE BIG SLEEP - both among the classics of 20th century literature. It even misses the layering of THE HIGH WINDOW, leaving a fun read without as much depth. Worse, the twists, while they might surprise or confuse readers fed on the whodunit simplicity of Agatha Christie, are, for devoted Chandlerites, more obvious. I guessed the titular lady's secret soon after she was found in the lake, and it was not too difficult to tie in several - although, I admit, not all - later twists.
Still, Chandler is Chandler. His dry, intoxicating prose is here, as is his mastery of characterization. The most vivid supporting characters here are not Degarmo, the brutal cop heavy, nor Mr. Kingsley, the wealthy perfume baron, both of whom would fit into almost any Chandler novel. Rather, the scene-stealers are Bill Chess, the roughneck widower, and Sheriff Jim Patton, the law in a place that rarely needs him. These two are far removed from the Los Angeles back alleys, grimy motel rooms, rundown slums and mansions with plenty of closet space for skeletons that are Chandler's milieu, yet they become as real as old friends.
Ultimately, writing a review of a Chandler novel is almost a waste of time. His devoted fans - among whose numbers I readily count myself - will want to own this no matter how many stars I give it; and those who prefer locked room whodunits with quirky old lady detectives aren't even reading this. Still, to those interested in finding out why Chandler has engrossed readers for decades, don't start here. I'd recommend THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY as introductions, and THE LADY IN THE LAKE as a palate-cleanser once you're hooked.