Reviewed by Kristen Valentine
Any self-respecting fan of detective fiction has read some or all of Raymond Chandler’s body of work. Often imitated, never duplicated, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe helped define a genre, an era, and a city – basically, I think I can safely say that you already know how great Raymond Chandler is. That’s why The Kept Girl has such a great hook: a noir novel featuring Ray Chandler as a character – a detective, no less – as well as the real-life cop who probably inspired Marlowe himself. Impeccably researched by social historian Kim Cooper, this novel is based on real events, but with a glitzy imagination all its own.
1929, Los Angeles. Ten years before Chandler would go on to publish The Big Sleep, he’s an oil company executive with not enough to do when he gets roped into helping his boss’s ne’er-do-well nephew. Clifford Dabney seems to have lost $40,000 on a dubious publishing venture, and the boss’s request is simple: locate as much of the missing assets as possible, and find out if any fraud has been committed against young Clifford. Ray enlists the help of his faithful secretary (and lover) Muriel Fischer – named thusly in a nod to Chandler’s real-life right-hand woman, Dorothy Fisher – as well as Tom James, an honest-to-a-fault beat cop whose incorruptibility has gotten him into hot water with his superiors. Together, the trio pieces together what actually happened to Dabney’s forty grand.
Publishing venture? Not exactly. It seems that Dabney and his wife have fallen in with a mother-daughter pair of con artists who claim to be the leaders of a cult called The Great Eleven. May and Ruth Blackburn have been raking in money for years by fundraising for the publication of their zany religious tracts, a series that promises to reveal the angel Gabriel’s secret of “how to read the stars to find the mineral wealth within the earth.” Dabney is something of an easy target for the women, eager to make a name for himself in the mineral wealth of the oil industry. But he and his wife don’t see themselves as victims of a con; instead, they are desperate to get back into the good graces of “Mother” May, who cast them out of the group after they ran into cash flow problems. But as Ray, Tom, and Muriel uncover allegations of disappearances, torture, and murder at the Great Eleven’s desert compound, it becomes clear that so much more is at work – and at stake – than just Dabney’s money.
This novel is great fun. Effortlessly told in a Chandler-esque style, capturing the glitter and buzz of 1920’s LA like a master, The Kept Girl reads like a pulp classic without coming off as self-consciously trying to be one, which is a big point in Cooper’s favor. Here and there, you can indeed see ways in which Tom James is similar to the dry, jaded voice of Philip Marlowe – for example, in this pointed description of a busy Los Angeles street:
“Main street was bright lights and hollering barkers, sharp-eyed women whose high color signified not youth but some tubercular condition, fat men who made thin men work had for small wages, a place where boys were corrupted and girls ruined, where each one of these small tragedies meant nothing much at all.”
But while I enjoyed reading The Kept Girl a lot, the novel isn’t without its missteps. Early on, Cooper makes an odd choice: she starts out with two chapters written in first-person narration from Ray’s perspective and then switches to Tom in third-person, but when we switch back to Ray again, it’s also in third-person. It’s not clear why Cooper chose to open the novel in Ray’s first-person voice only to drop it completely two chapters later, but it was strange enough to pull me out of the story in order to ponder it. The novel is also a bit front-loaded, with the most compelling parts in the early stages of the investigation, and the villians May and Ruth Blackburn don’t have nearly enough “screen time” to convey effectively how much power they had over their supplicants.
I’m endlessly intrigued by the fact that The Kept Girl was based on true events. Raymond Chandler really was caught up in a strange con artist cult? Maybe not quite as directly as in this novel, but he did work as a legal fixer for Dabney Oil, and Clifford Dabney really did lose forty grand to the Great Eleven (check out this Black Mask interview for more information on the actual case, but beware of spoilers). Given that Chandler allegedly wrote about real happenings in his novels all the time, it makes you wonder why he never wrote about this stuff if he was aware of it. Then again, that left room for Kim Cooper to do it, imperfectly but compellingly, and that’s a good thing.
Don’t just take our word for it: read it for yourself! Buy a copy of The Kept Girl at Amazon.