Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Long Goodbye

by Michael Dymmoch

My first encounter with Philip Marlow was in school. Chandler’s work wasn’t on any reading list, and I didn’t know crime fiction from newspaper filler. But I knew I liked the prose. I was an ugly duckling of a writer then, wondering why I wanted to hang out with art majors instead of other science geeks. I didn’t know a simile from sansemilla or a metaphor from a metronome. I still thought writers were inspired by God.

Years later, when I discovered I wasn’t a duck at all—or a chemist for that matter—I read Chandler again. And as a writer, I like the prose even more because I know how hard it is to write well. And to write beautifully. And to say more with metaphor than with mere description. Now, I know Chandler should have been on my schools’ reading lists.

Take, for example, his description of a man too far gone into the bottle: “He was leaning against a store front. He had to lean against something. His shirt was dirty and open at the neck and partly outside his jacket and partly not. He hadn’t shaved for four or five days. His nose was pinched. His skin was so pale that the long thin scars hardly showed. And his eyes were like holes poked in a snowbank.”

After Marlow rescues and feeds this individual, “His face now had a little color and the eyes were not so far back in his head that you had to grope for them.”

The beauty of metaphor is that it says so much more than the literal meaning of the words—paints the story and the subtext. Chandler was the master. His prose is elegant the way a great mathematical proof is elegant, or a tersely written bit of computer code. It does what’s needed without wasted words. And what a pleasure The Long Goodbye is to read.

Chandler was pretty good at suspense, too. Take the opening of chapter five: "The gun wasn’t pointed at me, he was just holding it.” Or the ending of chapter eight: "'Guess you won’t be with us long, if you’ve got Endicott,' he said pleasantly as he locked me in. I said I hoped he was right." Chandler was, after all, the man who advised, “In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns."

While it’s true the plot of The Long Goodbye rambles a bit, it covers a great deal of ground. Chandler managed to get in social commentary, a great shot at corrupt cops, and a portrait of California that made me feel I’d been there.

For the reader who loves words, following the story is like discovering wonderful sights when you’ve strayed from the Interstate.