In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
This one is a bit of a stretch. There are no spaceships, no wars over nascent technology, no deadly viruses, and no door-opening dinosaurs. There are a whole bunch of drunks, smog, and Oldsmobile convertibles. Yessir, this book takes place in 1950s L.A., the world of doctor-endorsed cigarettes, movie stars, mansions, and extensive highway systems. It still fits here because this book and almost everything after it owes its existence to the pulps, a medium that infused SF with the life it needed to become the powerhouse it is today, where it seems half of all new TV shows and movies have at least some type of speculative element.
Pulps were magazines published on cheap, rough-looking wood pulp paper. They were about half the price of the more prestigious magazines, and they published detective stories, horror fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. It was something cheap to read on the train and then throw away. A lot of writers who went on to publish their own novels ate on the checks they won from these magazines. Raymond Chandler wrote for Black Mask, which specialized in mysteries. Chandler has a weird story, as far as writing goes. He was a top oil executive pre-Depression, but lost his job and decided to try his hand at writing. His first short story was accepted at 45, his first novel published at 51. It is an impressively late start for someone who created such an enduring legacy in American fiction. He took what James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett started and forged it into one of the most recognizable subgenres out there: the hard-boiled detective story. Their protagonists are hard-fighting, hard-drinking men with a cynical outlook on life and a questionable relationship with the rest of the human race. Their style is one of spare, densely descriptive prose. The atmosphere of the books (at least The Long Goodbye) is more oppressive and fully-built than most other novels – this type of fiction lives on style. A lot of that style is created by the cynical, fast-talking wisecracking of the main character, Philip Marlowe. Basically, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart together created the American cultural memory of how men spoke in the 40s and 50s. In fact, Bogart delivered the defining film interpretation of Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep.
If you have not seen Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart acting together, you do not know what American cinema is.
The words and delivery of the main character form so much of the atmosphere of this book that the analysis of the few choice quotes that follow is necessary for an understanding of the book.
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.
This is the first paragraph of the novel. It introduces the principal mystery-driving character of a mystery story, so it is pretty important. This uses really simple language to convey a lot of information. First, the description of the character: young face, white hair, drunk as hell. A lot of descriptions work this way – Marlowe’s inner monologue always gives details about every new person in the story, and it is always a handful of key details that then leave you with more than enough to construct a full character. Hard-boiled detective fiction is the spiritual successor of of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. Also, the stylistic flourishes like “as if he had forgotten he had one” and “plastered to the hairline” are beautiful examples of Bogart talk, which, again, Chandler played a key role in inventing.
The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. There’s a line in the book saying that this is more attractive than women, so… different times, I guess?
II. Bogart Talk (BT henceforward)
These quotations are collected from all over the book, and the BT is strong in all of them.
And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.
Notice the information-dense recall of Terry Lennox (who has since caused Marlowe a heap of trouble): the “polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith,” followed by the darkly, impossibly humorous “depart rapidly in several directions,” capped off by the cynical and truthful commentary: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”
They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.
This second quotation is less complex, but still a great distillation of BT. Cynical, removed, semi-humorous view of the world tinged by disgust at what is being observed, summed up by a weird simile. The jarring quality of the strange simile stretches it almost to tearing, but it doesn’t tear, and the result is stronger than a more measured comparison would be.
The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him.
Not much to say here, just perfect dismissiveness and darkly humorous cynicism
I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.
Again, cynicism and humorous dismissal, the humor arising in large part from the extent of the dismissiveness. Sure, Marlowe’s pretty excited, he’s kissing a beautiful woman, but all he reports is the hilariously understated “It was light, pleasant work.”
III. Social Commentary
Sheriff Petersen just went right on getting re-elected, a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office forever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a closed mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable.
So, The Long Goodbye gets a lot of credit for being a vehicle for social commentary. Here is just the barest snippet, a beautiful dismemberment of the political process. Winning elections is all, all appearance, and no content. If you think Chandler or Marlowe is excessively cynical, just know that handsomeness has had a ridiculous influence on election results ever since Nixon and Kennedy. As a more recent example, I voted for Obama both times (it’s turned out kind of meh, but his stated platform was not explicitly evil, so). I remember being a lot more worried about Romney v. Obama than I was about McCain v. Obama. What created this dynamic? Obama is energetic and attractive, and McCain came off as an angry, wrinkled old man. Romney, on the other hand, was in roughly the same spot as Obama on the attractiveness spectrum. Policies aside, the man’s face is so chiselled it looks like he is currently on Mt. Rushmore. He ended up losing, but especially after that first debate, I was concerned he wouldn’t. Against an incumbent president. Because he was so pretty. Chandler knew and dismantled this failing of the American political system more than half a century ago, and it is only one of the smallest pieces of social commentary he weaves into this book.
Walter Mondale didn’t stand a fucking chance.
IV. Philip Marlowe is a badass
A basic requirement of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he know his way with his gun, with his fists, with a chair, or with whatever blunt objects happen to be within reach. The assumed badassery of the character is key. That being said, Marlowe is not some two-bit punk. He does actually try to avoid violence as much as possible, and he shows quite a bit of sentimentality whenever events break through his wisecracking exterior. Anyway, observe:
I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner. I sat down hard and shook my head.
So, this is describing when Marlowe was being questioned by police and made one angry on purpose to get him to hit him so he could gauge his threat level. The data gathered from this experiment indicated that this cop was more a boxer than a fighter, and that Marlowe would be able to take him to pieces if he hit him again. First off, inciting a punch to the face as a fact-finding mission is amazing. Secondly, the BT involved in “Bells rang, but not for dinner” to indicate that it was a hard hit, but only hard enough to make him shake his head, is a perfect incarnation of the form.
You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you. I didn’t say anything at all.
Marlowe is being directly insulted here, but is cool and collected enough to take no offense, let the man keep talking, and say nothing at all. A key feature of the hard-boiled hero is self-control and a certain superiority to emotion-driven idiots. He controls his emotions. Until the man is done talking, that is. At the end of the conversation, this guy who has been flaunting his wealth and calling Marlowe a nobody left his valuable cigarette case behind. Marlowe moves to return it, and then:
“I got a half dozen of them,” [the rich asshole] sneered.
When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.
A lot happened here. Saying nothing, taking it with equanimity at first. After the exchange has taken place, being taken over the edge by a final snide comment. Then, Marlowe accomplishes two things: flooring a man who has been shitting all over him and inserting a wonderful piece of BT as he does it, “How about a half a dozen of these?” Someone has been served here, and it ain’t Marlowe.
I don’t always smoke, but when I do, it’s after watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.
Chandler has been called a hack by some and a thief by others (he has a lot in common with earlier crime writer Dashiell Hammett). Those calling him a hack are hacks themselves, and those calling him a thief should realize that he did not steal a style, he polished and perfected it. He gave to American crime fiction a literary element it didn’t quite have before. His densely-packed, evocative prose created a legion of admirers, from Paul Auster to Joyce Carol Oates. Again, he almost single-handedly invented an entire style of dialogue.
The overarching plot of the book is a little crazy. Marlowe happens to meet a drunk at a club and finds out he has a beautiful wife. About ten pages later, the beautiful wife is dead and the drunk is at Marlowe’s house with a gun asking for a ride to Mexico. The drunk is a bit nervous, so Marlowe pours him a big shot of Old Grand-Dad (which I have been drinking steadily while writing this article). He takes him out of the country, returns, and spends the rest of the book navigating a world of shit as he attempts to find out what happened. By the denouement, there are so many twists and turns and moving parts that the whole thing almost comes crashing down. Almost. That being said, I hit the last 200 pages of this book and could not stop, meaning that I read until five a.m. and went in to work on just under three hours of sleep. Sometimes crazy is good. In addition, the solid, vivid atmosphere put together by Chandler alongside the snappy dialogue means that if it had been a story about the night shift at Pizza Hut, I still would have read it.
American crime fiction started its life in the literary backwater of pulp fiction, and a lot like SF, has since migrated into the mainstream. Raymond Chandler’s cynical style, sparse prose, and satisfying plotting laid a lot of the groundwork for that. He considered The Long Goodbye his greatest work, and you should too. Read it right now.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images: IMDB, Amazon, and Litreactor