As an example of the genre, it has everything a reader expects–the detective, the woman (three in this case), the hustler, the bad guy, the cops (crooked and straight), and so forth. But my recommendation on this novel has little to do with the genre. The plot is okay, nothing particularly thrilling. The hero, Philip Marlowe, is heroic and good, in the way that great literary P.I.’s are, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade–tough, big hearted, strict code of ethics that doesn’t always line up with law. Nope, that’s all fine, but it isn’t what made me say “Wow” again and again. It was the style.
Here’s a passage from Chapter Two, when Marlowe enters a greenhouse to meet a client. “The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.”
Okay, the first three sentences are stuffed with beautiful description of the air, the moisture, and the light, but it’s that fourth sentence that slays me. The “nasty, meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” Oh, my. Maybe that’s bad writing because it makes me stop and go back and read it again. And again. But I don’t think so. In fact I know it’s not so. That’s the kind of imagery, the kind of descriptive metaphor, that hammers a reader right between the eyes and sticks. I’d love to steal it for one of my novels. Maybe I will. Probably a lot of writers have.
And this passage is by no means an isolated occurrence. This kind of writing is typical in the novel. I’d like to know how many times I stopped and re-read a line and said, “Oh, man, that’s good.” So if you like crime fiction, you should read this book. But if you like crime fiction and masterful style, you have to read it.