The Lady in the Lake
Cover of the first edition
|Genre||Detective, Crime, Novel|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
|Preceded by||The High Window|
|Followed by||The Little Sister|
The Lady in the Lake is a 1943 detective novel by Raymond Chandler featuring the Los Angeles private investigator Philip Marlowe. Notable for its removal of Marlowe from his usual Los Angeles environs for much of the book, the novel's complicated plot initially deals with the case of a missing woman in a small mountain town some 80 miles (130 km) from the city. The book was written shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and makes several references to America's recent involvement in World War II.
Derace Kingsley, a wealthy businessman, hires Marlowe to find his estranged wife, Crystal. Kingsley had received a telegram from Crystal about two weeks before stating that she was divorcing him and marrying her gigolo boyfriend, Chris Lavery. But when Kingsley ran into him, Lavery had claimed that he hadn't seen her and didn't know where she was.
Marlowe begins his investigation with a visit to Lavery in the neighbouring town of Bay City. But while watching Lavery's house, Marlowe is threatened by the tough cop Al Degarmo, who suspects him of harassing Lavery's neighbour, Dr. Almore. Marlowe discovers that Almore's wife had died under suspicious circumstances and that her death was probably hushed up by the police.
Marlowe moves his investigations to Kingsley’s vacation cabin at Little Fawn Lake. Kingsley has given him a note to the caretaker, Bill Chess. Chess is depressed over having been abandoned by his wife, Muriel, at about the same time as Crystal disappeared. As Marlowe and Chess walk over the property, they discover a drowned body that Chess identifies as his wife, bloated from decomposition and almost unrecognisable except by her clothes and jewellery. Chess is arrested for his wife's murder and Marlowe doubtfully returns to Los Angeles. On the way, he interviews some hotel employees who remember a woman matching Crystal's description and volunteer that a man was with her; their description of the man resembles Lavery.
Marlowe returns to Bay City to interview Lavery again. At the house he finds Mrs. Fallbrook, who says she is the owner and has found a gun on the stairs. Once she has left, Marlowe ascertains that the gun has been fired and, after a search, finds Lavery murdered in the bathroom. Then he goes back to Kingsley, who offers him a bonus to prove Crystal didn't do it. Marlowe returns to Lavery's house, calls the police and reports the murder.
Back at his office, Marlowe finds a note from Kingsley's secretary giving him the address of Dr. Almore's wife's parents. Marlowe visits them and learns that Almore's nurse was named Mildred Haviland. They also tell him they believe the doctor killed their daughter by drugging her and then putting her in the garage with the car motor running. The detective they hired was jailed for drunk driving and is not now in contact with them. After Marlowe goes to the detective's home and is rebuffed by the wife, he is followed by a police car. As with the detective before, the police force him to drink liquor and arrest him for speeding, resisting arrest and drunk driving. But Marlowe is able to convince the police captain of his innocence and is released.
Returning to his office, Marlowe receives a call from Kingsley who tells him that Crystal has called, begging for $500. Kingsley gives the money to Marlowe to deliver. But when he meets Crystal at the agreed rendezvous, Marlowe insists that she answer his questions before receiving the money. Crystal agrees but only at a nearby apartment where she is staying. There he accuses her of being the murderer of Lavery. When she pulls a gun on Marlowe, someone hits him from behind with a sap.
Marlowe wakes up stinking of gin and with Crystal lying naked, bloody and strangled to death on the bed. Soon the Bay City police are banging on the door. Degarmo tries to frame Marlowe for the murder, but Marlowe convinces him that the two of them can more easily frame Kingsley. They travel to Little Fawn Lake together to get some evidence that Marlowe implies is there.
In the final confrontation at the cabin, Marlowe reveals that the murdered woman in Bay City, assumed to be Crystal Kingsley, was actually Mildred Haviland, killed in a jealous rage by Al Degarmo, who was her former husband. The murdered woman in Little Fawn Lake, supposed to be Muriel Chess, was actually Crystal Kingsley, killed by Mildred Haviland, who then assumed her identity. Mildred had formerly been Dr Almore's nurse, had murdered his wife and had also murdered Lavery.
Degarmo attempts to escape but is killed while crossing a dam guarded by wartime sentries under orders to shoot potential saboteurs.
Chandler wrote many of his novels by a process he called cannibalizing his earlier short stories. He would take stories previously published in pulp magazines and rework them so that they fitted together in one coherent whole. For The Lady in the Lake Chandler drew on stories featuring his detective John Dalmas: the eponymous "The Lady in the Lake" (published in 1939); "Bay City Blues" (1938); and "No Crime in the Mountains" (1941).
The skillful patchworking impressed Jacques Barzun, who reported of the novel in his A Catalogue of Crime: "The exposition of the situation and character is done with remarkable pace and skill, even for Chandler. This superb tale moves through a maze of puzzles and disclosures to its perfect conclusion. Marlowe makes a greater use of physical clues and ratiocination in this exploit than in any other. It is Chandler's masterpiece."
The novel has also figured in fuller studies of Chandler’s work. One author comments that the book's title is an explicit reference to the Lady of the Lake, the enchantress of Arthurian romance, especially in making its focus a mysterious female who shifts between roles in different versions of the telling. This in turn mirrors the ambiguity between how the evidence seems to an observer and what has actually happened. The drowned lady in the lake shares the same looks and moral character as her murderer. The true distinction between them, of victim and perpetrator, only becomes clear at the conclusion of the novel. The ambiguity is further advanced by the fact that each time the murderess is introduced into the action, she is masquerading under a different name. Mildred Haviland had disappeared after the killing of Dr Almore’s wife and then married Bill Chess, using the name Muriel; quitting that role, she impersonates Crystal Kingsley at the hotel in San Bernardino; and she throws Marlowe off the scent by introducing herself to him as Mrs Fallbrook, the owner of Chris Lavery’s apartment after his murder.
When the novel of 1943 was adapted to film in 1947, an experimental technique of cinematography was used to suggest the gap between the novel’s first-person narrative, representing subjective experience, and the reality that must be deduced from such ambiguous evidence. Marlowe the detective is not seen, except occasionally as a reflection in a mirror. Instead, the camera’s view takes his place and the cinema audience has to share his experience that way. Ultimately it was an unsatisfactory experiment since it provided a purely visual experience; the viewer could not share his heroic bouts with the whiskey bottle, could not defend himself from the invasive fist flung at the camera or evaluate the touch of siren or temptress. What the audience really shared with the narrator was “a disparity between the subjective’s promise and its fulfilment”, which is ultimately the reader’s experience of the written narrative too.
As well as the film of 1947, a 60-minute adaptation of the movie was broadcast on 9 February 1948 as part of Lux Radio Theater, with Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter reprising their film roles. Radio adaptations of the novel were also broadcast in the UK: Bill Morrison’s as part of The BBC Presents: Philip Marlowe on 7 November 1977; and Stephen Wyatt’s for BBC Radio 4 on 12 February 2011.
- Toby Widdicombe, A Reader's Guide to Raymond Chandler, Greenwood Press 2001, pp.36-7
- Quoted online
- Andrew M. Hakim, "Troubling Bodies of Evidence" in New Perspectives on Detective Fiction: Mystery Magnified, Routledge 2015, ch.1
- Peter Wolfe,Something More Than Night: The Case of Raymond Chandler, Bowling Green State University, 1985, p.179
- J. P. Telotte, “The Real Thing Is Something Else: Truth and Subjectivity in The Lady of the Lake”, chapter 6 of Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir, University of Illinois, 1989
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