March 08, 2015

Re-reading Chandler

Some years after reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely, I thought it was about time I read his other most famous novel, The Long Goodbye. I had fond memories of the ‘reworking’ of the story in Robert Altman's 1973 film starring Elliott Gould and wondered how Chandler’s style would stack up against some of the modern crime writers I’d been reading in the last few years.
The Long Goodbye shows Philip Marlowe becoming involved in what appears to be two separate cases but which wind up being connected. The first is his growing friendship with Terry Lennox, who turns out, it seems, to be the murderer of his rich socialite wife. After the friendship ends with Marlowe driving Lennox to Mexico to escape a possible charge of murder, the second storyline picks up: Marlowe is hired by Eileen Wade, the wife of famous novelist Roger Wade, to find her husband, who is a drunk and has either gone off on a bender or is drying out somewhere in a sanatorium. These two plot-lines converge in more violence in which Marlowe is implicated but doesn’t participate.

All of the classic hard-boiled elements are in place: a case that the detective doesn’t actually want to take on; a beautiful woman (two, as it transpires); the shift between high society and its opposite; and a variety of crimes and misdemeanours. And at the centre of it is the consciousness of Marlowe.
What strikes you about Marlowe is his cynicism about the world and its inhabitants and how this contrasts with his desire to find a modicum of decency in it. Los Angeles constantly lets him down in this regard. It’s baffling to him how people who have fame, fortune and beauty, like the Wades, can still screw it up. He wants to believe that beautiful people—especially women—are good, but he is almost always disappointed. This struggle between the appearance of virtue and the reality of vice is shown in a number of inversions in the book—Eileen Wade, for example, is described several times as ‘a dream’ and the ‘golden girl’, but she turns out to be perhaps the most wicked person in the storyline. Whereas a woman for whom Marlowe had very little time, Linda Loring, turns out to be nowhere near as malevolent as he thought her to be. In minor examples of this same incongruence, there is a Mexican servant who takes against Marlowe and seems to be implicated in at least one of the deaths, but who in the end decides that Marlowe is a good guy and is himself vindicated; and a black chauffeur who is university educated and quotes T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at Marlowe.
This type of reversal of expectations is epitomised in the fate of Terry Lennox, who has apparently disappeared, committing suicide, near the beginning of the book, but reappears in drastically altered form at its conclusion.
This discrepancy between what he expects and what he finds drives Marlowe’s attitude, which is given form in Chandler’s style and his famous use of metaphors and similes. In Farewell My Lovely there is the famous description of Moose Molloy looking as ‘inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food’, and here there are similar examples:
I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.
[Of a paper napkin] It looked as cheesy as a celluloid collar. 
I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string.
Inside my head thoughts stuck together like flies on flypaper.
Marlowe is angry at the world for not living up to his expectations, and this shows in his violent yoking together of disparate images, and in his aggression towards almost anyone he meets, even clients.
But what riles him most are blondes:
There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an iceblue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her …
… etc for practically two pages. You begin to think that Marlowe—or Chandler—had had a really bad experience with a blonde woman, and it’s true enough that at the end of the book he has a brief liaison with Linda Loring, who is dark-haired.
So Marlowe is angry, distrustful, cynical and dislikes modern life (there are several Marlovian rants against television shows and televised boxing—an interesting view of how the changing media landscape, perhaps, was impacting on writers). He does a bit of sleuthing—partly by paying another agency to do it for him, partly by driving around and talking to people—but just as often, events happen to him. Characters are introduced who are vibrantly interesting for a chapter—for example Dr Verringer and his pupil/patient Earl—but who then disappear from the story as if Chandler could find no further use for them.
And, as seems often the case in Chandler’s work, the story never knows when to end. There are at least three false endings to the book before the final one involving Terry Lennox puts a stop to the whole thing.
What can a modern crime writer learn from this alleged founder of the modern detective novel, then?
Primarily, I suppose, the importance of character in driving interest in the story. The whys and wherefores of the murders in the book are almost incidental—who cares why the murderer did what he or she did? Motive is secondary to the display of garish lives that are meaningless and, perhaps, worthless. Chandler and through him Marlowe are not interested in creating a puzzle for us to unravel. The writer once described Los Angeles as having ‘the personality of a paper cup’, and in his books he seems to have extended this perception to the city’s inhabitants. The depiction of the characters in their anomie and reckless hedonism, and sometimes greed and degeneracy, shows us a world in which morality has been turned upside down. Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books showed us the dark side of the American Family. Chandler as a writer shows us people can be ‘interesting’ and have ‘character’ but still be devoid of moral strength and purpose.
For modern writers of crime novels, the lesson is perhaps that people will read your books if your hero is aware of the moral turpitude that surrounds him or her while continuing to assert that decency and integrity are possible. This isn’t to make your central character a prig, but to show that there are lines that can’t be crossed. If, as a writer, you can do this with humour and a spring in your prose, then readers may well be seduced into entering your fictional world.

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