A victory of style if ever there was one. Immersed in the beauty of his prose, the way in which he presents his world, the timing of his humour, one scarcely notices the storyline, and I use that word advisedly.
As it happened, style’s been uppermost in my mind lately while editing a friend’s autobiographical ms. In her attempt to find her style she has resorted to a heavy-handed use of The Rhetorical Comma. Eventually they began to enrage me. I pictured lining them up in front of a firing squad and obliterating them with bullets. I began viciously stabbing at them. Her ms. is now covered in angry crosses and one word spat out over and over, as if out of a Dalek. Omit. Omit. Omit.
My friend doesn’t seem to understand that she already has the style she thinks she has to further impress upon the reader. This additional spoonfeeding is unnecessary. The arrangement of the words on the page tells the reader how to read them.
I could not help thinking, as I read Farewell My Lovely, that Chandler understood this. He does, in fact, use The Rhetorical Comma, but almost exclusively very early on. I expect he knew that all he had to do is put the idea of it into the reader’s head.
I cannot imagine how one could start reading this book and not keep right on at it to the end.
It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency though a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home.
I never found him, but Mrs Aleidis never paid me any money either.
It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian’s. A man was looking up at the sign too. He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.
Slim quiet negroes passed up and down the street and stared at him with darting side glances. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough grey sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated grey flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of coloured feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. 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.
His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that grey eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.
How can a movie capture this? I took a look at the Mitchum version last night and the fact is, it doesn’t. If you’ve started off with the movie, don’t let that put you off. The book is splendid.
PS: My copy of the red Penguin edition has no comma in the title. The green Penguin does.
Is it Farewell My Lovely? Or Farewell, My Lovely? Looking at the pictures of covers online, it seems to be evenly divided between one and the other. I see the dust-jacket of the first edition has a comma, which makes it more likely, though not a sure thing, to be correct.