Raymond Chandler is regarded as one of the best crime writers of all time, and his book The Long Goodbye is the perfect example of why he deserves these accolades.
Not only is Chandler a great crime writer, his books are also excellent example of literary fiction. He hasn't had as much recognition for his skills as a writer of literary fiction because of the way in which crime fiction is viewed, but this is a big mistake.
In The Long Goodbye, PI Phillip Marlowe meets and forms a friendship with Terry Lennox, who draws him into a web of deception and murder. The book is set in the fabulously decadent Los Angeles of the 1950's. The characters are larger than life and often stereotypical; there is the alcoholic and introspective writer, the quack doctors, the alluring and beautiful women and the powerful and controlling capitalist.
Yet Chandler still gives his characters in The Long Goodbye a level of complexity that belies their stereotypical exteriors.
Phillip Marlowe is a particularly complex character. He comes across as a tough guy, someone willing to stand up for right and wrong and take on the big issues. Despite being a PI, or perhaps because of it, he is cynical of the criminal justice system. He is moralistic and frustrated about the corruption he sees in the world around him.
Towards the beginning of the book, Marlowe finds himself incarcerated because he refuses to disclose any information about he whereabouts of Terry Lennox to police. The solicitor who has been sent by a mysterious benefactor to assist him apply for bail says this him:
"You had to play the big scene,'he said coldly. 'Stand on your rights, talk about the law. How ingenuous can a man get, Marlowe? A man like you who is supposed to know his way around. The law isn't justice. It's a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law ever was ever intended to be. I guess you're not in any mood to be helped. So I'll take myself off. You can reach me if you change your mind."I liked this quite for two reasons. The first is that as a criminal solicitor myself, I understand what the solicitor who is speaking his trying to get at. People expect justice from the law; but justice is above and beyond what the law can offer. The law is comprised of man-made rules that regulate our behaviour - nothing that could ever really be expected to give true justice for all the wrongs committed by people who do the wrong thing. I also like it because of what it demonstrates about Marlowe - he is moralistic and does believe in justice and fighting for what he thinks is right. In Marlowe you can't help but perceive a greater sense of frustration at life underlying his behaviour.
Yet, underneath of this Chandler gives us glimpses of a sentimental man, a romantic. He is suspicious of people, but his friendship with Terry Lennox and his romance at the conclusion of the book show that Marlowe's inner self can be touched by others. He can be annoyed and frustrated at the position he finds himself in, and yet he is willing to light a cigarette and pour a cup of coffee on behalf of his absent friend at this request.
In The Long Goodbye it is not just the complexity of the characters which Chandler is able to craft to perfection. The plot itself is full of twists and turns. Chandler is able to build up many different and seemingly unconnected narrative threads and draw them all together in the end so neatly that you can't quite help but be astounded at how you got there.
The most putstanding and famous element of The Long Goodbye is of course Chandler's writing. Inspired by Carroll Daly and Dashiell Hammett, this book is a qunitessential example of hardboiled crime fiction.
Until I read The Long Goodbye, I didn't realise just how influential Chandler's writing and characterisation has been. Now I see his influence everywhere and most recently in the writing of Peter Temple, an Australian crime writer who's work can also be considered literary fiction.
Chandler's writing is edgy and raw. The sentences are short and sharp. The dialogue is snappy. He is perfectly able to create a sense of place and character with his straightforward prose. Chandler's use of simile to describe events is integral to his style. The simile's themselves are unique and often surprising but extremely effective.
I say all the above with my objective hat on. Personally, I did find the hardboiled style a little challenging. The writing is so pared down that I found it required an extra level of concentration to follow what was happening. This was particularly the case with the dialogue, which was often so minimal I had to read the meaning into the words rather than find it there. I was distracted by a little niggling voice at the back of my head that kept saying to me, "People don't really talk like this is real life." I also found the pace of the book a lot slower than I would have liked, which meant that some of the time I felt as though I had to push my way through the story, rather than being carried along by it. I really expected something thrilling and exciting that kept me on the edge of my seat - something very plot driven. Instead I got something slow that meandered about - more character driven than anything.
Having said that, I can absolutely see how Chandler has deservedly become a literary icon. The Long Goodbye is his most well-known and longest book and is, despite my personal reaction, something I recognise as an example of the some of the best literature of the 20th century.
What kind of read is this?
A very intense read that will challenge you as a reader.
Do I recommend this book?
Yes, especially to anyone with a genuine interest in literature.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
Not unless you are already a big Chandler fan. Borrowing it from the library would be fine.