Reading a Raymond Chandler novel today is like a genre mashup of poetry, historical fiction, and crime mystery all rolled into one. Take The Long Goodbye (1953) for instance.
Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled narration is charming to read. I doubt that was the goal when he wrote it, but sixty-odd years later, reading the lyrical sentences had me smiling throughout the story and showcased Philip Marlowe as a vulnerable tough guy. It’s the contrast that endears.
If I want to feel like I’m in Los Angeles in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, I can jump into the historical climate of a Raymond Chandler book. The ambiance is authentic in the darker world. What a better place to insert an anti-hero. Philip Marlowe is a complex character with a healthy mixture of noble and ruthless attributes.
Philip Marlowe is often described as a moral man surrounded by unethical people. No one is trustworthy. He is full of contradictions. He is a man of his time. There are occasions in his narrative when he shows little regard for Mexicans, homosexuals, and women. On the other hand, he sees through the masks of affluent or authoritative “important” people. He is a good judge of character, dodging past their games and calling out with brass their true colors even if it gets him thrown in jail or shot at.
In The Long Goodbye, Terry Lenox is a veteran of WWII who saved his buddies in war but can’t save himself back home. He resorts to drinking to help him escape his trauma. He is polite and Marlowe can’t refuse to help him sensing pain and some decency in the man.
“There’s always something to do if you don’t have to work or consider the cost. It’s no real fun but the rich don’t know that. They never had any. They never want anything very hard except maybe somebody else’s wife and that’s a pretty pale desire compared with the way a plumber’s wife wants new curtains for the living room.” – Terry Lennox, Chapter 3, Page 21
In creating Marlowe, Raymond Chandler paints an interesting man who possesses an unusual way of describing his feelings with similes. It is part of Raymond Chandler’s legacy for quick, witty dialogue and provocative, lyrical similes. His language is precise and yet ambiguous in meaning. This is the formula Chandler employes to create Philip Marlowe’s charm and appeal.
“I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.”
“. . . the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare”.
“I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string.”
“He looked like a tubercular white rat.”