i ain’t much for supposin’

May 23, 2011

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler is, even by Chandler standards, highly revered. As well as being his longest Phillip Marlowe novel, it’s also the most fatalistic, the most world-wearied, the most introspective and the most cynical.

Marlowe, the archetypical post-depression era private eye (and vehicle for Humphrey Bogart’s illustrious career as the smooth-talking, womanising, gun-toting detective) is in rare form here. He is cunning and yet optimistic. He knows when to wax lyrical, and he knows when to keep his trap shut. In this day and age it may be harder to believe that women may respond to his gruff manner, constant rebuffs and infinite cynicism by unfastening their bathrobes, but believe it or not, there is an element of romance in Chandler’s writing. It’s not all fast talking and high trousers. As the web of lies and scandal spins itself around him, Marlowe becomes involved in an ever- tenuous struggle to keep his own cool, to hold on to his standards and of course to keep doing his job. It may not be glamorous work, but for Marlowe it seems that in an increasingly fractured society, the private eye beat is the only yardstick by which he can measure his own morality; by remaining honest whilst digging to the deepest recesses of the most corrupt and sordid of characters, Marlowe seeks his own redemption more than that of his misdirected clientele. He knows better than to assume that the coyer the smile, the more innocent the girl.

I guess that leads to my only real criticism of The Long Goodbye; Marlowe himself is often prone to the kind of sentimentality that is incongruous with the sordid line of business he is in. I doubt anybody charging twenty-five dollars per day would repeatedly stick his neck out to such dangerous lengths in order to adhere to some unspoken moral code. He is, at heart, too optimistic to be believable, when his worldview is so sharply cynical and fatalistic. I suppose in that sense you could argue that his optimism acts as a counterbalance and thus a plot device to propel the story – a lesser man would either get dead or give up, and then there’d be no story to tell. Marlowe, and indeed Chandler, don’t necessarily adhere to the adage that “the tragedy of life … is not that the beautiful things die young, but that they grow old and mean,” sage wisdom though it may be.

The violence in Chandler, unlike, say, Hammett, is brief, often takes place behind closed doors or just barely within earshot, and is over in a matter of a few lines. Hammett prefers the dynamic, protracted kind of action sequences, characterised by lots of sneaking around, silent pursuits, foot chases and noisy, bloody gunfights that often result in less people living than dying. On the contrary, more often than not Marlowe just happens upon violence. Indeed, the novel’s most violent moment comes very early on, and the remaining 400 pages sometimes seem like they are, to use the author’s own words, recovering from that one big hangover.

With the violence out of the way early, it allows Chandler and Marlowe room to take their time. Despite the novel’s length, there are days where he does little more than visit a bar and pick up a newspaper; there are extended sequences where he spends time following the faintest of scents in the hope of uncovering some unlikely connection that will link itself to the case. In many ways its languid mood is a reflection of the heat of the Californian summer, and of course this sultry atmosphere is as much a character in Chandler’s writing as Marlowe himself. The measured pacing and heavy atmosphere allow for a lot of reflection, a lot of dialogue and a lot of commentary. Chapters often end abruptly with sarcastic quips such as “[c]ops never say goodbye. They’re always hoping to see you again in the line-up,” but they usually come just as Marlowe has reached the end of his patience, or has had a little too much to drink. After all, what would the hard-boiled genre be without a resigned fatalism? Marlowe is a loner. The nights that he doesn’t spend alone are spent sprawled out drunk one somebody’s couch, for instance, or in resigned talks with marked men who are not long for this world. Under these circumstances it’s understandable that Marlowe would become jaded. Chandler was writing at the pinnacle of Hollywood’s decadence and depravity; before gangs and poverty infiltrated and when rich socialites legitimately ruled the roost, not corporations. There are class struggles aplenty and it’s clear that no amount of refined manners can cover up the inherent flaws in the imaginations of the upper-class. Chandler is a working class author for a working class audience who makes no secret of his disdain for extravagant tastes and lifestyles.

Of course, with The Long Goodbye, Chandler not only proves himself a master of prose but also of plotting. It may seem that all the dead ends and cold trails are all tied-up nice and neat with a little pink bow on top, until we are forced to reflect deeply on the fates of all the characters in the book’s final pages. What was long since dead and buried may just resurface; likewise the glimmers of optimism gradually flicker out. There is a deep sadness embedded within these pages, between all the sharp wit and criticism, and in many ways the title of the novel itself suggests what is to come – a protracted, heart-wrenching outward sigh that can indeed only end in one very particular way.


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