Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler

I am a fan of Raymond Chandler’s work (who would have guessed it). I also know that The Long Goodbye is considered by many to be his best work. I’m not one of them. For me, it should be called The Over Long Goodbye. It needed a sharp edit, because it was a bit too damn precious.

I know that Chandler was exorcising his own demons – having an alcoholic writer centre stage makes that pretty obvious, but he let this one get away with a bit too much. Why has Marlowe moved? Oh yeah, so that scene toward the end works. Why do all the threads need to be tied up so tightly and neatly? Well, we can only speculate on that, perhaps an author’s desire to impose order in the one place where he has real control.

There is nothing wrong with the plot. There is nothing wrong with the writing. These are both handled as well as ever. But it does begin to ramble, much as a drunk would when telling a story. There’s always another bit, there’s always a digression, there’s always a sense of going round in circles.

For all these faults I still like the book and would much rather read it than a lot of other novels. To open one’s own life to speculation so thoroughly takes a lot of courage, to do so seamlessly in the context of a crime novel takes a lot of skill. And it contains one of the best ever character sketches for a minor character I’ve ever come across. Marlowe offers a dollar to a chauffer who has taken him home and when the chauffer refuses, Marlowe offers to buy him a copy of Eliot’s poems; the chauffer replies that he already has a copy – so much said in a very short, almost throw-away exchange.

That is why I like Chandler’s writing; that is why I would encourage others to read his books. And even this one, where Chandler is a bit self-indulgent (and goodness knows he earned the right), can easily be used to teach everything you need to know about good writing.