Monday, November 13, 2006

The Lady in the Lake

For those not familiar with the plot of Raymond Chandler's The
Lady in the Lake, see here.  The basic plot revolves around the murder of Crystal Kingsley - a rich and spoiled heiress.

There are certain problems in the plot of "The Lady in the Lake", which the brilliance of Chandler's construction, it's pace, the development of his story, and the fascination of his narrative voice, cause to be overlooked.  When Chandler said "writing is magic", he seems to have meant that in more than one sense.

Those problems resolve around the inconsistencies between
the motivations and the actions of three persons: Chris Lavery - Crystal Kingley's lover; Mildred Haviland - aka Muriel Chess; and Lieutenant Al DeGarmo - a Bay City police detective and Mildred's "Ex".

Chandler cleverly resolves these problems by killing off all three characters before they can be made to tell their stories. It would have been impossible for any one of these three persons - let alone
all three - to have explained their motivations in a way that
could be reconciled with the known facts.


Lavery was an exploiter of rich women, a man with "a Casanova
complex", as Marlowe says; he had enough nerve, and knowledge
of their psychology to enable him to seduce them, keep them
on a string, bilk them of whatever he could get, and dump
them when he was finished with them - with no comebacks.
Now, no one so much as hints that Lavery was an accomplice in the murder of Crystal, before or after the fact; therefore Mildred lied to Lavery about the reason she was impersonating Crystal. In that case, the fact that Crystal's husband told Lavery that someone
sent a telegram from El Paso in Crystal's name - announcing her supposed marriage to Lavery - would have been a very suspicious circumstance.

Later, when confronted with Marlowe, Lavery learns that Crystal's disappearance was not just the spiteful invention of a man who had reasons to hate him; that Crystal, in fact, was well and truly missing, completely unaccounted for after her disappearance from Little Fawn Lake.

When Marlowe accuses him of having himself been at Little Fawn
Lake, Lavery doesn't ask the obvious question - "what difference
does it make if I was there or not?". Likewise Chandler does not
allow Marlowe to even mention the supposed murder of Muriel Chess to Lavery, nor does Marlowe ask him about any of the people up there, even though they were the last persons known to have seen Crystal, whom Marlowe is searching for.

Lavery also had some reason to believe that his neighbor Dr. Almore's wife did not commit suicide as was supposed but was murdered, and that Mildred - Almore's mistress - may have been either the actual murderer or an accomplice.

More than 48 hours after speaking to Crystal's husband,
and some 12 hours after speaking to Marlowe,  Lavery was killed by Mildred, a woman he had grave reasons to suspect: who had repeatedly lied to him and told an inconsistent story, who repeatedly revised those lies whenever she found it convenient, who was obviously playing some kind of deep game, and who might already be the murderer of Mrs. Almore.

Lastly, Muriel was known to have been in the house at the time Lavery was killed, even before her abortive confession to Marlowe (who remarks that because Lavery was showering and shaving at the time he was killed - late at night - he must have been preparing for an intimate encounter; which in the end proved to be the fact).

Yet in spite of all this Lavery allowed himself to be trapped naked in his bathroom and slaughtered by Mildred.


Mildred - also known by her married name of Muriel Chess - was a female counterpart to Lavery: she specialized in victimizing men. She was "a woman who could make the men jump through hoops" as Marlowe says; it is important to bear this in mind, in what follows.

She murdered Crystal in the first place, from jealousy; but
as Marlowe says, getting Crystal's money, jewels, and car to
use as a stake in getting away from Bill Chess, made killing
Crystal "a rational as well as an agreeable thing to do."

But she had no reason to continue the impersonation of Crystal
beyond a sufficient distance from Little Fawn Lake to make it
appear that Crystal did not die there, so as to avoid a search of the Lake.

Mildred had the bad luck to run into Lavery in San Bernadino;
but she used the circumstance to help her in laying the false
trail she planned. But her actions are inconsistent with her motivations.

The fact that she sent the telegram to Crystal's husband from
Texas means she must have intended to murder Lavery from
the start: he was in a position to show not only that she was
impersonating Crystal, but also that Crystal's trail went no further than Little Fawn Lake.

Yet having lured him so far away, she not only failed to kill
him but also allowed him to take away her money and drag her
back to California. Marlowe says that he thinks Mildred lied
about this; but if she retained her money, why did she come out
of hiding to beg the $500 from Crystal's husband?

And unless Lavery kept her bound hand and foot all the way from El Paso, it is hard to understand why she, who had already murdered two people (Mrs Almore and Crystal Kingsley) did not kill him too, in his sleep or otherwise; as she had intended all along, and would have had to do in any case, if her murder and switching of identities with Crystal was to remain undiscovered.


Overhearing Mildred's conversation with Marlowe from a hiding place in her apartment, DeGarmo realized that his ex-wife was out of control and would go on killing until she was caught. But he could not afford to have that happen: because the disclosure of his illegal actions in covering up Mildred's killings would have - at a minimum - destroyed both his livelihood and his self-respect. His panic combined with the anger and resentment he felt for the suffering Mildred had caused him in their marriage, and he raped and strangled her after knocking out Marlowe from behind.

But after killing her, he still has the same problem: Marlowe
thinks she is Crystal; and when Crystal's husband is asked
to identify the body as that of his wife, he will identify it
instead as that of a woman named "Muriel Chess", his neighbor at Little Fawn Lake.

Then all of Mildred's crimes will come to light, and DeGarmo
himself will come under suspicion as the frustrated former
husband of the lady; her present husband being in prison.

But attempting to frame Marlowe for the crime is silly: it
doesn't solve the problem that the body will be identified
as Mildred's, not Crystal's. Moreover the stunt of pouring
liquor on Marlowe's clothes to make it look as if he were
drunk, had been tried once before, unsuccessfully, in connection
with the false arrest of Marlowe for drunk driving.

Worst of all, when "discovering" the killing with his colleagues
Shorty and Reed, DeGarmo sees the body of the murdered woman on the bed and remarks to Marlowe "I never saw the lady, until last night"; neither does he tell his fellow cops that he recognizes the body as that of his ex-wife.

Even without all this, it would have been necessary for DeGarmo to resort to some ugly device such as fire, or a brutal beating of
Mildred's dead face, to make it unrecognizable; and combined that with the killing of Marlowe "while resisting arrest", in order to have any hope of escaping involvement. By immediately reporting
the murder to the police, DeGarmo eliminated any possibility of
preventing the correct identification of Mildred's body.

In the denouement, Crystal's innocent husband, who had offered Marlowe a large reward to find the murderer of his wife, was shocked to hear Marlowe's explanation of how and when Crystal died, up there at Little Fawn Lake.

Meanwhile the remainder of the party has been eaten by bears.  That is to say, that of  the three parties in question, Lavery - the first - was killed by Mildred.  Mildred/Muriel - the second - has just been killed by Lt. DeGarmo.  And DeGarmo - the third - dies in a spectacular fashion immediately after the blow off, and before he can be arrested.

Chandler remarks on DeGarmo's death in the final paragraph of the book:

"A hundred feet down the canyon a small coupe was smashed against the side of a huge granite boulder.  It was upside down, leaning a little.  There were three men down there.  They had moved the car enough to lift something out.  Something that had been a man."

Copyright (c) 2006, 2012 by Carl Spalletta
Fair use with attribution is encouraged


andrew adams said...

This is a very careful examination of the plot and I think all of yours points make sense. Particularly in the case of Degarmo who can't possible expect framing Marlowe for a murder he has absolutely no motive for.

taneagrafika said...

Very interesting and well argued. Just one quibble. You say:
"Likewise Chandler does not allow Marlowe to even mention the supposed murder of Muriel Chess to Lavery"
Marlowe interviews Lavery before he goes to Little Fawn Lake.

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