Today I feel compelled to note the 122 anniversary of the birth of my favorite author, Raymond Chandler. The main reason being that I am currently re-reading what I think is the true Great American Novel, Chandler’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye.
Chandler, as some of you may know, was the creator of arguably the second most famous fictional private detective in the world, Philip Marlowe. [Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly Number 1] Marlowe is a tough, down-at-heels private eye, who in spite of the cynicism he tries to project is at heart an idealist and an optimist. Over the narrative course of five novels he continually gets involved in the messy lives of the people he meets even when he doesn’t really need to.
In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe meets a guy named Terry Lennox:
The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.
When Lennox is abandoned by the girl he’s with just because he’s just run out of dough, Marlowe takes him home and sobers him up. Marlowe knows better than to get involved with drunks, but he does it anyway.
Marlowe says, “Terry Lennox made me plenty of trouble. But after all that’s my line of work.” Well, maybe. Usually a private eye gets paid for helping people. Lennox has no money, and in fact, Marlowe rarely makes a dime off any of the people he helps. So, it’s more than just Marlowe’s “line of work.” More like his mission.
“I’m supposed to be tough but there was something about the guy that got me,” Marlowe ruminates after his first encounter with Terry Lennox. Later, he tells Lennox,
I’m a private dick. You’re a problem that I don’t have to solve. But the problem is there. Call it a hunch. If you want to be extra polite, call it a sense of character. Maybe that girl didn’t walk out on you at The Dancers just because you were drunk. Maybe she had a feeling too.
Tricycle Magazine did an article once on Marlowe as a Bodhisattva. I wish I could find it. If you’re a subscriber, you can log in a read it. I think It’s called “Zen Master Marlowe.” There might be an earlier one, from the ‘90’s also. I remember they described him as the “true American Bodhisattva.”
Marlowe lives by a code of integrity. He has a strong sense of morals but he never tries to impose them on others. Marlowe is the kind of guy who takes a stand and then proves it all night. At some point in every case Marlowe figures he’s fighting for the little guy, or woman—whomever’s been pushed around or taken advantage of, but he usually finds more victimizers than victims. No one’s innocent. What he is really fighting for is an ideal, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, he never wavers from his belief that there is some good in this world and he never stops looking for it.
Throughout his noble quest to bring order out of chaos, Marlowe himself is taken advantage of plenty of times. Everyone lies to him. They abuse him, slap him around, beat him up, hit him over the head and shove guns in his face. Marlow takes it and keeps going, convinced that somewhere along the path there is redemption.
Philip Marlowe is the great American literary character, a direct descendant of Huck Finn.
Raymond Chandler described his creation this way:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
Marlowe’s samsara is Southern California, a world that is both glamorous and sleazy, beautiful and brutal:
I turned off and slowed down for the dusty stretch to the entrance of Idle Valley, then hit the paving again and in a little while the ocean breeze made itself felt, drifting down through the gap in the hills at the far end of the lake. High sprinklers revolved over the big smooth lawns and the water made a swishing sound as it licked at the grass. By this time most of the well-heeled people were away somewhere else. You could tell by the shuttered look of the houses and the way the gardener’s truck was parked smack in the middle of the driveway . . .
It’s a long drag back from Tijuana and one of the dullest drives in the state. Tijuana is nothing; all they want there is the buck. The kid who sidles over to your car and looks at you with big wistful eyes and says, “One dime, please, mister,” will try to sell you his sister in the next sentence. Tijuana is not Mexico. No border town is anything but a border town . . .
In Marlowe’s world, relationships are superficial, people worship at the altar of greed, and everyone is either on the take, or on the make:
The bar was pretty empty. Three booths down a couple of sharpies were selling each other pieces of Twentieth Century-Fox, using double-arm gestures instead of money. They had a telephone on the table between them and every two or three minutes they would play the match game to see who called Zanuck with a hot idea. They were young, dark, eager and full of vitality. They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.
The cops Marlowe usually meets up with are so utterly corrupt, they make low-life criminals seem angelic:
It was two o’clock when I got back and they were waiting for me in a dark sedan with no police tags, no red light, only the double antenna, and not only police cars have those. I was halfway up the steps before they came out of it and yelled at me, the usual couple in the usual suits, with the usual stony leisure of movement, as if the world was waiting hushed and silent for them to tell it what to do . . .
He looked at me as if I was a cigarette stub, or an empty chair. Just something in his line of vision, without interest for him . . . He leaned farther towards me and I smelled his sweat and the gas of corruption.
I’ve given The Long Goodbye three or four readings, the last time being about twenty years ago, so I thought this might be a good time read it again and see if it was a good as I remember. It is.
Raymond Chandler is rarely ranked with the greatest American authors. For most of the 20th Century, Hemingway was God. I don’t believe in God. I’ll take the guy who Ross MacDonald, another great crime novelist, said wrote like a “slumming angel.” Chandler was a also a poet, and in some places his writing resembles Beat Poetry:
The other part of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’s daughter and had five kids and read them the funny paper on Sunday morning and smacked their heads when they got out of line and squabbled with the wife about how much spending money they were to get and what programs they could have on the radio or TV set. I might even have got rich—small-town rich, an eight-roam house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend., I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.