This novel, the fifth full-length account of Philip Marlowe’s knightly ventures into the Pilgrim’s Regress landscape that is Southern California, has an almost decadent feel to it. One might even say that with this book Chandler has reached the Mannerist phase of his career, the phase in which the natural vigor of earlier work gives way to an emphasis on achieving highly stylized effects. The very choice of a name for the client who sets the case in motion—Orfamay Quest, of Manhattan, Kansas—signals that we’re dealing with a writer for whom exaggeration has become the only available response to creative exhaustion. It’s a name that evokes both the crude conditions of a fallen world (Has any real woman ever called herself Orfamay?) and the promise of transcendence that will beguile our hero (but of course: a quest!), and it sets the tone for the mock-allegorical festivities to come.
Hollywood, aptly enough, provides the setting as well as the subject matter for the story of Orfamay and the quest that she initiates. Marlowe had always made his professional home in the place called Hollywood, but in this adventure he reckons directly with Hollywood as a subculture of professional fantasists, and that confrontation pushes Chandler’s writing toward a kind of surrealism. All of the standard Chandler gestures still work—the similes resonate, the dialogue throws off sparks—but they now seem outsized and out of perspective. A great many of the characters whom Marlowe encounters, for example, aren’t just corrupt; they soliloquize about the depth of their corruption and then, to reinforce the point, perform over-the-top displays of corrupt behavior. The mystery plot is also over-the-top, with about two and a half twists more than it strictly needs.
Which isn’t to say that the book fails to satisfy. Even when he skirts self-parody, Chandler knows how to turn a phrase, and how to keep his readers turning the page. In this instance, his final pages yield a sharply etched epiphany: The distance from innocent Kansas to sin-ridden Hollywood, we learn, is not pathetically long but tragically short.