Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Long Goodbye

I’m late to the party, as usual, but I can’t resist getting in on the City of Chicago’s program that encouraged all Chicagoans to read Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye as part of a city-wide discussion. The Outfit has covered this in detail, and better than I’m likely to do here, but that never stopped me before.

It had been several years since I read The Long Goodbye, though I have always thought it was the most beautifully written of Chandler’s works, and I read Chandler for the writing. A lot of other reading competes for my attention, and it’s sometimes difficult to choose to reread something when the pile of books never read threatens the safety of anyone who disturbs it. I took the attention focused on TLG as an excuse to give it another look. What I found was unexpected.

Maybe it was all the commentary I’d already read; maybe I’ve grown as a reader. (Probably the former.) This was different book than I remembered; in particular, a different Marlowe. No longer the knight errant, fighting battles he can’t win in the hope that enough good will be accomplished to make his draw—or narrow defeat—palatable. This Marlowe has seen too much, lost too much, and been alone too much. What had been sardonic comments are now cynical. This Marlowe is a man well down the road to bitterness, who no longer expects things to work out in any appreciable manner. He plays out the string because his code demands it, not for any expectation of accomplishing anything. He views all others in shades of dark grey; he can’t help them, and, since they probably don’t deserve it, he’s not going to overextend himself. Even his walk into Mendy Menendez’s trap at the end is more an act of fatalistic resignation than of the courage displayed when boarding the gambling boat to look for Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe doesn’t care what happens to others, so why should he care what happens to himself? It makes the book no less effective, but makes his solving of the final puzzle even more bittersweet than usual.

Chandler’s writing is at its peak. The famous similes are there, and almost every page has at least one line to inspire any writer to whisper “I wish I’d written that” as his eye passes over it. Time has forced a change in perception here, too. The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s farewell to Marlowe in many ways. Playback came several years later, a shadow of the work that had come before, Marlowe rebelling against the prospect of becoming a kept man. It’s impossible to know how Poodle Springs would have turned out had he lived to finish it, instead of Robert B. Parker. The unabashed Chandlerphile Parker—then at the height of his considerable powers—returned Marlowe to the character who took on all comers in The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, a man probably overmatched who is willing to fight a battle of attrition because, whatever happens to him, he believes it is his will that prevails.

Denouements fall like October leaves in The Long Goodbye as Chandler wraps up loose ends with Eileen Wade, Bernie Ohls, Sylvia Loring, and Terry Lennox. In some ways it’s as if he knew he would never again write anything of this stature and wanted this one to last as long as he could reasonably prolong it, the literary equivalent to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In it, he sums everything good and not so good about his writing—nothing about it was ever bad—and lays before the reader as conclusive a testament to his archetypical detective as any scholar could hope to accomplish. Chandler’s own struggles with women and booze showed him Marlowe had to become; in The Long Goodbye, he shows the rest of us.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Knowing what's Important

Apparently the repairs for Hurricane Katrina are complete. The Louisiana state legislature now has time to debate whether it’s a crime to wear jeans too low on the hips. The ACLU and Plumbers’ Union will fight the bill in court if it passes.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Washington Capitals fans are in full self-pity mode today, after losing Game 7 of their first round Stanley Cup playoff series in overtime. One of the players was quoted to the effect that beating Philadelphia would be hard enough without having to beat the refs, too.


The Caps had to live with a tough, but proper, no-call that cost them a goal. The penalty that left them shorthanded for the game winner had to be called, or there was no point in even bringing the referees onto the ice for the overtime.

It all worked out for the Caps and their fans. Now they can cry in their beer about how they got jobbed in overtime of a seventh game, instead of spending the summer licking their wounds after Pittsburgh swept them in four games, which is what would have happened had they advanced.

Some people don’t know when they have it good.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I am a native of Western Pennsylvania, grew up in what used to be a small steel town. My father, grandfather, and uncle worked for Alcoa. I left the Pittsburgh area when I joined the army in 1980; the only relatively local teaching job I could find paid $8500.

I still visit my parents in the house where I grew up. My roots to Pittsburgh are deep and solid; the Post-Gazette's web site is regular reading for me. I've lived from Atlanta to Boston to Chicago to Washington DC, but I still consider myself a Pennsylvanian.

That's why the furor over Obama's "bitter" comments offends me. Over the past forty years, the people he's talking about—people I grew up with—have seen their jobs, their medical insurance, and their pensions disappear. Their children—such as me—have moved away to find jobs with futures. Every "improvement" in the American economy has passed them by. Damn right they're bitter. If they seem insular and untrusting, that's because they're down to a few things they can depend on, and they're holding onto them for dear life. If they think every advance made by another group comes at their expense, they have forty years of experience of watching it. The anger is misdirected—more of what they lost has gone to wealthy whites than poor blacks—in large part because Republicans have based their success over the past three decades on portraying the races as natural foes, when the real issue has been class.

Obama’s comments will not play as much of a role as the media predicts for one reason: little offense will be taken. These people know they're bitter. They're used to it, and they might even like Obama a little more for recognizing it in them.

My life and family are established here now; I'm not likely to move back to Pittsburgh. It still makes me feel good to see Pennsylvania play an important role in this pivotal election, as the parts of it I know so well have been taken for granted for so long.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Declan Hughes on New Mystery Reader

New Mystery Reader has just posted an insightful interview with Irish Crime Fiction writer Declan Hughes, who has written three books in his Ed Loy series. While the questions are nothing special (not surprising, considering who asked them), Mr. Hughes’s replies are insightful and entertaining. Well worth checking out.

My Kind of Town

I lived over three years in the Chicago area—Woodridge, actually—and have tried, with diminishing efficiency, to get back as often as possible. It’s been four years since my last trip, and the time has not been kind to my image of the city.

I write a lot of crime fiction set in Chicago, which is the perfect place for crime fiction. The problem is, once you do much research in Chicago’s criminal history, and its ostensibly straight history, one conclusion cannot be avoided: there’s no difference. Maybe New York City’s Tammany Hall era was as corrupt as Chicago has been routinely. Maybe.

Organized crime doesn’t run the city as overtly as in the days of Al Capone, or Tony Accardo and Pat Marcy. It’s also true Chicago has a way of getting things done that, while not unknown elsewhere, has become so entrenched in Chicago as to be part of the culture. Chicago celebrates its criminal past more than any city except Las Vegas, which is not the standard a respectable city wants to maintain.

I’ve learned too much about criminality to romanticize it, so I didn’t look forward to returning as much as I usually do when work took me back this week. It would be nice to see some friends I’ve missed, and four years without an Italian beef from Portillo’s is virtually a life-threatening situation. The plan was to see my buds, eat some beef, get my work done and come home.

That held up until the cab from the airport started driving me past streets I knew too well. My hotel was on West Adams; I was working on South LaSalle. I used to work on West Randolph, so I knew where everything was. All previous disclaimers aside, I felt at home right away. I walked the streets, bought a tee shirt at Blue Chicago, and would have gone to Wrigley Field has I not remembered—just in time—that the Cubs were in Pittsburgh, not the other way round. I enjoyed every second I spent there.

This is no faint praise. I’m a country boy by nature. My childhood home—where my parents still live—had a neighbor on the adjacent property, another across the street. The next house on the other side from the neighbor was half a mile down the road. There were no house behind us for a couple of miles, past a wooded area and the Meadow Gold dairy farm. This is my idea of reasonable population density.

I work in Washington DC every day, and can’t wait to get out of it. I took my daughter to see a photographic exhibit in New York a few years ago, and made it a day trip. There’s something about Chicago, even in the Loop, that’s different. Maybe it’s the freshness of constant rebuilding, or the variety of architecture. More likely it’s the attitude of people all just doing what needs to be done. Chicago calls itself that city that works; its people sure do. Too many of them work in unsavory enterprises, but Chicago is not a place that wants something for nothing.

The weather was typical Chicago April, which is to say Alaskan crabbers wouldn’t want to go out in it, at least not Thursday’s mess of cold, wind, and rain. And I got a head cold worse than I’ve had in years. I’ll be back, though. For the beefs. And the lakefront. Navy Pier. Buckingham Fountain and Ed DeBevic’s. The million little things I didn’t realize I missed until I saw them again.

I just won’t go back on American Airlines.