I am rereading The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s longest and second-to-last novel, published in 1953. I’m on a steady rotation with Chandler’s books, returning to the seven novels and dozens of stories every few years, and I’ve been doing this since the early 1970s. I’m not a mystery fan. I don’t reread Dashiell Hammett, George V. Higgins, or Derek Raymond – none of whom transcend pulp – and they are virtually the only other crime writers I’ve ever read. Chandler’s world is familiar, like Dickens’ and Joyce’s, and Philip Marlowe remains one of the most attractive characters in fiction. In 1988, the Irish poet Derek Mahon reviewed a four-in-one reissue of Chandler’s novels, and suggested why the books are so readable and worth reading again and again:
“There is a lyrical plangency about certain passage which reminds us that we are reading, not pulp, not even good pulp, but `literature.’”
He could have dropped the quotes around the L-word. No apologies or qualifications are necessary. Chandler wrote great books. Marlowe lives by a code of tough decency. He often agonizes over the decisions and compromises the fallen world he inhabits – our world, but more stylish – force on him. In The Wild Bunch – a Chandlerian Western, if such a thing is imaginable – Sam Peckinpah divides the warring sides of Marlowe between two characters, Pike Bishop (played by William Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), aging members of the Bunch. Arguing over a former member of the gang who now works as a bounty hunter for a railroad, Bishop says: “He gave his word.” Engstrom replies: “He gave his word to a railroad.”
Bishop: “It’s his word!”
Engstrom: “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”
In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe chooses to be beaten, threatened and spat upon by a brutal L.A. cop rather than renege on his word to Terry Lennox, a new and not particularly close friend, but a friend nevertheless. This dedication to a tarnished code of honor is part of Chandler’s charm, as are his prose and his satiric eye. Of a book publisher, Marlowe says, “He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.”
Chandler's literary conscience was bothered by the genre in which he had chosen to work. Part of him wished to write "heavy novels." We can be grateful he never did, because the hard-boiled detective story enabled him to indulge his strengths, minimize or ignore his weaknesses and create great books that continue to give dependable pleasure to readers. "All of which is to say that gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves," as Marianne Moore once wrote in a very different context.
An interviewer asked David Thomas of Pere Ubu, "What writers do you like?" He replied, in toto, "Raymond Chandler."