Derace Kingsley marched briskly behind about eight hundred dollars’ worth of executive desk and planted his backside in a tall leather chair. He reached himself a panatela out of a copper and mahogany box and trimmed it and lit it with a fat copper desk lighter. He took his time about it. It didn’t matter about my time.
This is the fourth of six books starring world-weary and constitutionally difficult Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe. It is one of Chandler’s three entries in the CWA’s top 100 crime novels. It was published in 1943 (I am reading it for Crimes of the Century) and Marlowe’s world shows signs of the War in Europe, from rubber rationing to policemen losing interest in their jobs because they are going into the Army in a few weeks.
The plot centres around a missing femme fatale. Crystal Kingsley is the kleptomaniac, unfaithful and flaky wife of business executive Derace Kingsley, who summons Marlowe to his executive suite for a briefing. A month ago Crystal told him she was eloping with her lover Chris Lavery, but Lavery says he hasn’t seen her and it looks like she has dropped off the map. Kingsley hires Marlowe to track her down before she gets herself into trouble and he loses his job.
Marlowe’s first port of call is the village of Puma Point, where the Kingsleys have a cabin at Little Fawn Lake. He’s looking for evidence Crystal went up there. The caretaker, Bill Chess, shows him around and they end up drinking together. Just before Marlowe leaves they make a grisly discovery – a woman’s body trapped under some old boards.
Back in Puma Point to report the body, Marlowe encounters something of a rarity – a policeman he gets along with. Jim Patton is an honest small-town Constable, characterful and honest.
He got into a car which had a siren on it, two red spotlights, two fog-lights, a red and white fire plate, a new air-raid horn on top, three axes, two heavy coils of rope and a fire extinguisher in the back seat, extra petrol and oil and water-cans in a frame on the running board, an extra spare tyre roped to the one on the rack, the stuffing coming out of the upholstery in dingy wads, and half an inch of dust over what was left of the paint.
Behind the right-hand lower corner of the windshield there was a white card printed in block capitals. It read:
VOTERS, ATTENTION! KEEP JIM PATTON CONSTABLE HE IS TOO OLD TO GO TO WORK
Patton is a counterpoint to the LA cop that Marlowe runs up against outside the home of Crystal’s lover Chris Lavery.
‘God damn it,’ he said, ‘do you want me to drag you out of there and bounce you on the pavement?’
I got my wallet out and handed it to him. He drew the celluloid pocket out and looked at my driver’s licence, then turned the pocket over and looked at the photostat of my other licence on the back. He rammed it contemptuously back into the wallet and handed me the wallet. I put it away. His hand dipped and came up with a blue-and-gold police badge.
‘Degarmo, detective-lieutenant,’ he said in his heavy brutal voice.
Both policemen play an important role in an investigation which takes Marlowe back to LA and into a story which takes in dope, crooked PIs, love and murder before looping back to the Kingsleys’ cabin in the woods.
I’ll give Jim Patton the last word – it just about sums up the character of Marlowe:
‘You got a funny way of working for people, seems to me.’
The Lady in the Lake
First published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf, 1943
This edition, Penguin 2011
304 pages in print
Final destination: A keeper