Putting the Mystery Back Into Mysterious Orientations

If it has seemed that Mysterious Orientations has, of late, been heavy on the  Orientations and light on the Mysterious, I can only plead “guilty as charged”. I have been gadding about East Asia and babbling/blogging at some length about it for the past several months (at least when internet availability permitted), to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. In the midst of all that, however, I have been reading a lot, catching up on back catalog of favorite authors, and even turning up a couple of folks who were new to me, so I think it is high time I devote a few columns to that facet of my existence.

Many of the budget hotels in Thailand and Cambodia offer ad hoc libraries, comprised of battered paperbacks left behind by other travelers when they have finished with them. These books often come with sand sandwiched between the pages, assorted food stains (I hope it is food…), and that greenish dampness that characterizes all paper products in Southeast Asia, but they are a godsend to the traveler facing a nine-hour bus ride with only the current issue of Modern Bride on hand for reading material in English. The rule of the hotel libraries seems to be “take a book, leave a book”, and I did this with some regularity. The downside, of course, is that a lot of the books on offer tend to be steamy potboilers, outdated Lonely Planet guides, Zen meditation manuals and the like. Still, one intrepid traveler was kind enough to leave a well-worn copy of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, for which I was profoundly grateful. I had read the book before, back in my early days of devouring mysteries, and thought it quite a good read at the time, albeit a bit dated (when did they stop making Packards, anyway?). I was really interested to see how it had held up, given how much time I have devoted to reading suspense novels in the intervening years. The answer: surprisingly well—so well, in fact, that I would have to concur with the legions of Rittererry Kuritics (sound it out, and you will think you’re turning Japanese…) who revere Chandler as the Father of the Modern Detective Story.

Chandler’s protagonist, the hard-drinking (Four Roses), chain-smoking (Camels), fast-driving (late 1930s flivvers) Philip Marlowe, serves as the prototype for any number of modern suspense heroes. Joe Pike (Robert Crais), Jack Reacher (Lee Child), and C.W. Sughrue (James Crumley) all have lengthy strands of Marlowe DNA running through their vital fluids, as do Easy Rawlins (Walter Mosley), Derek Strange (George Pelecanos), and No-First-Name-Burke (Andrew Vachss). In fact, one could easily advance the argument that all modern detective novels are based on either the “Philip Marlowe / Sam Spade” model, or the “Travis McGee” model (the first group featuring the hard-boiled, laconic, decidedly non-introspective protagonist, while the second offers up a hero significantly more laid-back, cerebral, and humorous, in a self-deprecatory sort of way). There is another column to be written around that premise, have no doubt…

Farewell, My Lovely unfolds in the first person, as all good mysteries should; if you pay close attention, you can almost hear the world-weary voiceover of Humphrey Bogart delivering the narrative, and folks, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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