By Raymond Chandler – This hardboiled detective story from 1953 is one of Chandler’s last featuring detective Philip Marlowe, and all the usual appeal is here—Los Angeles riffraff, a complex plot, and the sly, ironic first-person tone of wiseass Marlowe, who narrates. Although the prose conjures the voice of the ultimate Marlowe interpreter, Humphrey Bogart, the movie version was on ice for two decades, awaiting the deft touch of Robert Altman, with Elliott Gould as Marlowe. (FYI, the Rotten Tomatoes critics give this one a 96% rating, so it’s now on my Netflix list!)
Lots of alcohol gets sloshed in this story, written at a period when Chandler—an alcoholic himself—was at a serious low point (his wife was dying) and discouraged about his writing. It was late in his career, and he wanted to be taken more seriously. A few plot elements don’t quite hang together, and “the Madison” (a $5000 bill a client sent him) is not the unbelievable windfall it was in 1950, yet the writing propels you forward from sentence one: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”
Keep reading, and you’re rewarded with thrilling descriptions (“His eyebrows waved gently, like the antennae of some suspicious insect.” “On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn’t any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.” A metaphor that probably says as much about how Chandler—and Marlowe—were feeling at that moment as it does about how the fictional bee may have felt.) Of course, Chandler was equally observant and precise in his descriptions of people: “There was the usual light scattering of compulsive drinkers getting tuned up at the bar . . ., the kind that reach very slowly for the first one and watch their hands so they won’t knock anything over.” Oh yeah.
In a crime fiction anthology published in 1995, mystery writer Bill Pronzini called The Long Goodbye “a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery.” Contemporary novelist Paul Auster wrote, “Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” A pity Chandler didn’t anticipate that the critics’ unwavering praise of him ultimately would extend beyond genre borders.
If the books leave you wanting more, take the awesome Esotouric Raymond Chandler Tour or get the map of his Los Angeles settings, described in this popular post from last fall.