Shamus! Where is thy bluff?


Philip Marlowe, favourite protagonist (and arguably alter ego) of Raymond Chandler, never seems to get the whole story from his clients. The case handed to him by the uppity lawyer representing anonymous Washington big-shots seems no different, although right from the start it's clear that someone is holding back. Who's the dame he's meant to follow from the train station? What's she running from? What has local spiv Larry Mitchell found out about her, and did he or didn't he appear, briefly, with a bullet in his heart on her balcony? What did Henry Clarendon IV see? What did the car-park attendant see? More importantly, what did his parrot see? And will he talk?

Chandler's plots are notoriously complicated. The Big Sleep never actually made sense, whoever the reader decided at the end the real killer was: there was always one death outstanding. In addition, Chandler's---well, Marlowe's---habit of rarely explicitly prejudging other people's actions means that you're left with what Marlowe narrates, and what others say or do, as the only indicators of what's really going on. This is either a hindrance to understanding character motive, or an indispensible element of Chandler's style, depending on your taste. Certainly, more than any other thriller writer, Chandler puts you right in Marlowe's skin, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears, smelling what he can smell, occasionally thinking what he thinks, but no further than that.

Eventually the plot almost disentangles itself, or at any rate the central thread does. In any other writer---Agatha Christie, say---the sudden introduction of a new character to move the plot along might be criticised. But the centre is never the kernel of a Chandler story; rather, the reader is drawn to the little investigations and interactions that circle around it. Like Columbo, Marlowe entertains us in his journeys, not his destinations. Still, it's fitting that in this, Chandler's last novel, Marlowe finally arrives at the terminus he justly deserves, rather than the one he has always feared. Suddenly, it seems there is a God that shapes our ends; but Marlowe probably wouldn't like to comment, given such flimsy evidence, and Chandler... maybe he knows by now, but dead men don't say nuthin.