The Goodbye Coast

In Joe Ide’s newest crime thriller, The Goodbye Coast, he abandons his popular crime-solver Isaiah Quintabe, in favor of a twenty-first century private investigator Philip Marlowe (yes!) who’s working on two compelling missing persons cases at once. 

In his acknowledgements, Ide quotes Chandler himself, who once claimed there are no classics of crime and detection fiction, but Ide maintains that Chandler came closer than anyone. He was Ide’s original writing inspiration, and that of many other writers, and attracted millions of fans. Movies made from his books helped define film noir, with Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe an indelible representation of the cynical, world-weary p.i. of hardboiled crime fiction.

Undertaking to write what’s billed as a modern version of such an icon is more than a bit cheeky. How well did Ide do? He succeeds to some extent—he has the cynicism and wisecracking down and the occasional skewering of the Establishment. He leaves most of the hard drinking to a character invented for this story, Philip’s father, Emmet Marlowe, a Los Angeles homicide detective on leave to dry out after the death of his wife, Philip’s mother. The modern Marlowe shares his namesake’s tendency for insubordination, which cost him his place in the police academy and led him to a mentorship with low-rent private detective, Basilio Ignacia.

Marlowe’s new client is fading movie star Kendra James, whose husband Terry was shot dead on the beach in front of their Malibu home a few weeks earlier. Terry was a failed movie producer desperately trying for one last big score. His seventeen-year-old daughter Cody has gone missing, and Kendra wants Marlowe to find her.

Before long Basilio drops another case in Marlowe’s lap—unwanted, but there it is. A woman has flown in from London to search for her son Jeremy, kidnapped by her ex-husband.

The theme of parents and children—and how these relationships can go terribly wrong, warping a person’s actions and reactions—permeates the book. In the case of Ren and her kidnapped son, the ex-husband is the problem, and she’s become monomaniacal about getting Jeremy back; in the case of Kendra and Cody, neither has a compassionate or generous bone in their bodies. No way could a healthy relationship evolve. Marlowe gets along with his dad, mostly, because he’s repressed his anger about his father’s neglect of his mother as she was dying. Emmet’s drinking shows he feels that shortcoming too, of course.

While you can chuckle at the relentless snark of Cody, only because it’s not directed at you, and enjoy the more civilized jibes of Ren (who’s English, after all), neither one of these females listens to Marlowe or takes his advice. Stay in your car until I get there? Not a chance. Don’t go there by yourself? Already out the door. Needless to say, their incautious behavior causes worlds of trouble.

Marlowe uses his connections in the film industry, mostly in the form of past clients who are still speaking to him, to try to get a lead on Jeremy. Once he’s found Cody, he’s suspicious of her stepmother’s intentions and stashes her at his dad’s house until he can sort things out. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated and deadly than he anticipates, involving the Russian mob, Armenian hitmen, a Bosnian assassin, and Cody’s brother, a gay minor league baseball player.

As a big fan of Ide’s I.Q. books, I think he misses the mark here. There are just too many violent confrontations and climaxes. It’s like a movie with endless car chases and shootouts. Non-stop action is tiring. At the end, I felt like somebody just beat me up.

In a rare period of quiet near the story’s end, Marlowe takes some time to review his notes and comes up with a theory about who killed Terry that he thinks holds water. His conclusions come very close to violating a basic principle of mystery-writing: Don’t introduce new clues at the end of the story. At least two pieces of his explanation relied on information I did not have. Possibly I missed these elements in the reading, but I don’t think so.

Finally, one of the pleasures of reading Chandler is his unforgettable deployment of metaphor. (My favorite: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) Ide is quite skilled with the language, and writes in an effective, forceful way, but, as this is a homage, I expected a few high-flown metaphors. Maybe they wouldn’t feel right in 2022, but I missed them.

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Advice from Raymond Chandler

Author Raymond Chandler, considered the godfather of hardboiled crime—don’t call it noir—stepped out of his fictional mean streets and into the real world on occasion and wrote some rather charming and forward-thinking essays of workplace advice: “Notes to an Employer” and “Advice to a Secretary.” Thank The Strand Magazine for reprinting these a few months back.

Chandler’s secretary at the time he wrote “Advice to a Secretary” was Juanita Messick, and it’s down-to-earth, simultaneously encouraging and, on some points, demanding. Chandler is expressing very clearly his own needs and starts by saying, “Never pretend to know something which you do not know, or only know imperfectly.” This dictum is routinely ignored in social media, but Chandler says it’s a prescription for misunderstanding.

It sounds as if he’s run up against sticklers of various types and considered it a bad experience. He didn’t welcome input about grammar, literary usages, and punctuation, believing there’s more latitude than purists might think, “Punctuation is an art and not a science.” It has to replicate, insofar as possible, the natural cadences of speech, which vary from what precise rules might suggest.

He tells Messick to never take anything for granted. Ask questions if something isn’t clear. “Demand an explanation.” Being my own secretary, I admit to interrogating myself frequently about sentences I wrote a month, or a week, or an hour before: “Yes, but what do you mean here? What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, words that seemed perfectly clear when I wrote them somehow manage to shed all significance. It’s the one advantage of a short attention span; every time I read something I’ve written, it’s new to me.

Chandler was uncomfortable with the employer-employee relationship and there’s no stronger egalitarian impulse today, seventy years later, than when he said, “If he (always a he in Chandler’s piece) is talking nonsense, tell him so; you can do him no greater service.” And he encourages the secretary to stick up for herself when she’s tired or late or must leave on the dot: “We are both just people.”Strand editor Andrew Gulli discovered “Advice to a Secretary” in a shoebox at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Gulli was engaged by it in part because, he says, writers whose work embodies very dark themes often” are among the most friendly and benign people around.” In my experience, gatherings of mystery and crime writers bear out this impression. Certainly, “Advice to a Secretary” suggests a considerate and accommodating employer. Or, as Cynthia Conrad wrote in BookTrib, “For a moment we see the big-hearted softie under the tough-guy trench coat.”

****Crazy Rhythm

gumshoe, detective

photo: Jason Howell, creative commons license

By T.W. Emory If you need a break from serial killers and world-at-risk mayhem, TW Emory’s Gunnar Nilson mysteries may be a perfect, lighthearted alternative. Crazy Rhythm is entertaining, engaging, and written with tongue in cheek and a big tip of the grey fedora to Raymond Chandler’s wisecracking private eyes.

PI Gunnar Nilson lives in the rain-soaked northwest United States. In the current era, he’s a resident in the Finecare assisted living facility in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle, recuperating from a broken leg. But in his early 1950s heyday, he was a private eye in the city itself. He has stories to tell, and what’s even more gratifying for an old man, attractive Finecare staff member Kirsti Liddell, aged about 20, wants to hear them.

This is the second book having this set-up, and author TW Emory moves you smoothly back to the post-WW II era with its ways of talking and living. Nilson, the detective, lives in a heavily Scandinavian boarding house with his landlady, Mrs. Berger, a former fan dancer with the photographs to prove it, and two other single men.

In the story he tells Kirsti, years ago Rune Granholm, the younger ne’er-do-well brother of an old friend wants Nilson to attend a meeting with him where a significant amount of cash will be exchanged for an expensive Cartier watch. The whole set-up sounds fishy to Nilson, but he agrees to go out of loyalty to his dead friend and an understandable dab of curiosity. When he arrives at Granholm’s apartment to meet up prior to the exchange, he finds Granholm shot dead.

He is soon distracted from looking into Granholm’s death by a potentially lucrative case dropped in his lap. He’s asked to investigate threatening phone calls a wealthy heiress has been receiving. Delving into this woman’s complicated past reveals, well, complications.

Nilson is soon embroiled in more than one tricky situation involving beautiful women who seem rather more ardent than informative. At these points, Kirsti breaks in to remind Nilson that her mother, to whom she relays their conversations, finds his many supposed romantic conquests entirely unbelievable.

Some blood is spilled – Granholm’s certainly – but the whole effect is more charming than nail-biting. Nilson’s evocation of Raymond Chandler is also entertaining, such as, “…it was guys like Rune who eventually got me to believe that the human race was for me to learn from, when I wasn’t bent over laughing at it.”

Nilson is never wrong-footed as he pursues his investigations of various colorful characters, and it’s fun to watch him in action. Writing a pastiche of an author as revered as Chandler is brave, and Emory carries it off in a style aptly embodied in the novel’s title. A fast read—perfect entertainment for a long airplane flight!

****The Long Goodbye

$5000 bill

“The Madison” (photo: wikimedia.org)

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.