A Stand-up Guy In A Shady Town

I wanted to start 2010 by writing about one of my favorite authors. An author who took a pulpy category and turned it into a home for both the man on the street and the man in the library. His genius was an ability to fulfill the reader who was only after a quick thrill while simultaneously engaging the reader who appreciates precisely paced prose laced with wile, wit and wisdom. The New Yorker said of him that he “wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered.” Paul Auster said “he invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” Joyce Carol Oates has said of him, “his prose rises to heights of unselfconscious eloquence, and we realize with a jolt of excitement that we are in the presence of not a mere action tale teller, but a stylist, a writer with a vision.” Ross Macdonald may have captured the essence of him when he said, “he wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”

I write (it will be obvious to many of you now) of Raymond Chandler. Recognized by virtually all fictionistas as the ultimate writer of the detective story. But it would be criminal to categorize Chandler as merely a “crime writer.” Even though that’s essentially what he wrote of in classic novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady In The Lake, The Little Sister, The High Window, and more. For while the plots of his novels and stories are hip deep in private eyes, shady characters, deadly molls and dastardly deeds, they also abound with irony, honor, ennui, pathos, and acts of unselfish humanity.

My favorite Chandler book is one that spurs debate among critics and fans alike. The Long Goodbye was written later in Chandler’s career. Published in the early 1950s, it was decades after his triumphs listed in the preceding paragraph. While many view it as his crossover from category fiction (the basic crime novel) to mainstream contemporary literature, there are those who feel it is not quite up to his early work. I, for one, am in the camp of the former rather than the latter. I find it just as engrossing as anything Chandler wrote earlier and even more rich with moral quandaries and elusive questions of treachery, friendship and ambiguity. The exceptional Chandlerisms are still there. Such as “the girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” and “I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string” and “it was so quiet that you almost heard the temperature drop as you came in the door.” But also there is a sadness that permeates the pages and infuses each bon mot with a tinge of regret.

Chandler’s wife (a good deal older than he) was dying of cancer as he penned The Long Goodbye. No doubt the title and the heart of the story itself were wrapped up in his musings about her. Like many writers, Chandler both benefited from and battled alcoholism for much of his life. He was an English-born American who came to understand and write about this country in ways that are still making writers envious to this day. Chances are he will continue to do so for centuries to come.

In 1973, The Long Goodbye was made into a movie directed by Robert Altman. Chandler’s detective was played by Elliot Gould. It’s a fine movie, steeped in the aura of the 1970s, not the 1950s in which the book was written. Gould’s was sort of a “new-age” take on the private dick that Humphrey Bogart had immortalized in the film made of The Big Sleep in 1946. Altman’s Long Goodbye is as much the director’s take on that particular decade as it is an homage to Raymond’s Chandler’s Los Angeles. But it’s well worth seeing and enjoying. Be aware however, liberties have been taken with the story. Particularly the ending.

Detective-story fan or not, find and read some Raymond Chandler. He’s in all the libraries and virtually all the book stores (the good ones anyway) have him listed in either mysteries, thrillers or classics. His work was a bit of all three. Yes, his creation, Philip Marlowe, became the private eye almost all others after him were meant to emulate. Yet none really did. Because no other author, including The Fiction Fortune Hunter, had the skill and style and humanity of Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler.

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