Review: The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye (Penguin single volume) by Raymond Chandler.

For one reason or another, on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago I picked up my old dog-eared Penguin triple volume of Chandler. I think I’ve read each novel at least once (some twice) but the last time must have been some years ago, since I could not for the life of me remember much about the plots in any of them. Just as well then, because it felt like I was reading them again for the first time. By the following Thursday I’d read all three books.

The Big Sleep is a great crime novel and a great book full stop. It is quite complicated, so I won’t try to summarise all the plot here, but what I do think is that if it isn’t Chandler’s best book, then in many respects it’s his calling card as a writer. While the plot can be tricky to discuss and get your head around, what comes across crystal clear is the evocation of the seedier side of pre-war Los Angeles, the general atmosphere of the place, and of course Phillip Marlowe himself.

Probably my favourite novel out of the three collected together here is Chandler’s second to be published, Farewell My Lovely. Take the seedy LA of The Big Sleep, add a cast of misfits, drugs, alcohol, a murder hunt, a missing person case and what have you got? A book that satisfies on the plot level, and which also sees gallant old Marlowe working in tandem with the law to being to solve a case. Brilliant stuff.  

Is The Long Goodbye Chandler’s best book? He seemed to think so and is on record in a letter to a friend as saying so.

Either way, I think that this book, the penultimate Marlowe novel published in Chandler’s lifetime,  shows off the immortal character of Phillip Marlowe at his wise-cracking, sharp, cynical but essentially gallant best.

Here’s the plot: One night Marlowe quite by chance makes the acquaintance of Terry Lennox, the politest drunk he’s ever met. One thing leads to another and the two strike up a friendship which mostly revolves around drinking cocktails in the early evening.

Then things are turned completely on their head when Lennox arrives very early one morning at Marlowe’s Laurel Canyon home. Lennox needs to get out of Los Angeles and fast. Marlowe knows Lennox is in trouble (part of him knew from the off that Lennox WAS trouble) but in that typically hard-but-fair Marlowe way, he agrees to help his new friend by driving him to the airport, where he can catch a plane for Mexico. The only proviso is that Marlowe doesn’t want to know what Lennox has done.

This is only the beginning of a plot that becomes more and more complex once Marlowe is engaged by the wife and publishers of an alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, to make sure that the scribe stays off the bottle and on track to finish his latest blockbuster novel.

I’ve described Marlowe as gallant a couple of times now, but that is a key adjective when trying to fathom this cynical, wise-cracking, tough but essentially decent man. Why he’d want to put himself through hell for £25 dollars a day plus expense (and sometimes for free) is beyond me. ”

“Well if I don’t do it, no-one else will, pal,” would probably be his reply.

I am now well into the companion volume to this, which collects three of the other most highly regarded Marlowe books in one. I will blog about this when I’ve read it.

For the moment though, if you have never read any Chandler then I can heartily recommend him. Though he remains not just a standard writer of crime novels but also a touchstone one, his books are not always kept in stock in new book shops in the UK at least.  Good independent retailers can always get them, however, and there’s always loads of them available second hand. Ebooks also seem to be readily available too.

 

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Simon Gray- The Early Diaries.

I read the early diaries by Simon Gray in July 2010. This post is an adapted version of a review I put online at the time elsewhere. 

One of the bonuses of being a nation where people have been busy with writing for so long is that you get great writers in all forms. So in the United Kingdom we’ve obviously got a lot of playwrights, novelists and poets to choose from. But it means there are plenty of other fine writers who mastered less obvious literary forms. One of these is the diary.

The late Simon Gray is something of a ‘double first’. A prolific playwright from the 60’s until his death in the early nineties, towards the end of his life he gained a critical and commercial success with his “Smoking Diaries” series. They proved not only that he was a great prose writer with something to say, but also showed that he was something of an innovator. These aren’t conventional diaries giving a blow-by-blow account of the deeds of a particular day. Instead they’re written in continuous prose, and are only loosely based around what he’s doing on a particular day. Gray skilfully blends his observations of what is happening in the here and now, and uses these as springboards to muse on his past, his present, his work, life in general, his friends, modern Britain, the state of the world, cricket and so on and so on. Even if you don’t know his plays and don’t really read diaries, they’re still a great read.

However, they were not Gray’s first foray into diary writing. In 2010  Faber and Faber reissued Gray’s earlier 80’s diaries, “An Unnatural Pursuit” and “How’s That For Telling ’em Fat Lady?” Overall, these are slightly different works to Gray’s later Diaries. Both of these earlier 80’s works take us through Gray’s experiences as a playwright collaborating first with Harold Pinter in the original London production of the play “The Common Pursuit” and, in the second part, assisting a colourful American crew with a Los Angeles revival of the same work.
Gray depicted himself in his later Smoking Diaries as an enforcedly teetotal, ruminative character. They are very different in tone to  these earlier works, which are blow by blow accounts of projects in progress, and give us a glimpse of Gray the working playwright, at a time when his writing was in as full flow as the booze (at this time he would regularly drink three bottles of champagne a day, before starting on the Glenfiddich at nighttime. Yikes.).

This is quite a different Gray: sometimes combative, sometimes conciliatory; endlessly rewriting in pursuit of the right line in the right place; always swilling champagne or single malt. Stand out scenes in this book include an end-of-run meal intended as a celebration, but which soon sees Harold Pinter threaten to hit Gray with an ashtray in response to something the latter had said in his cups. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, we are treated to numerous accounts of run-ins with shop staff and theatre colleagues. One constant source of irritation that he turns into a running joke concerns a VCR that won’t play and the annoying clerks he encounters at his hotel. Many of these scenes are added extra spice by their having first been spoken into a dictaphone in the early hours, when Gray was feeling either contrite, still angry or just plain hungover. If the Smoking Diaries were beautifully written and delicately constructed, then these Early Diaries have an equally distincitve charm in that they’re rather like having Gray talk to you directly.

What unites the earlier and later Grays are cigarettes (at one stage he describes himself as chewing on nicorette gum while a cig burns away in his hand) and restaurants (clearly he was a very loyal patron, always going to the same place which gets mentioned again and again in his diaries, even if in the case of Musso and Franks in LA he largely takes a dim view of the place), not to mention his unflinchingly self-critical stance (the short essay ‘My Cambridge’ paints a particularly unflattering but illuminating pen portrait of the kind of figure he cut there as a student).

And then there’s the paranoia. In all his prose memoirs there are moments of happiness, but overall I get the impression that Gray finds his best material in things going wrong for him. He revels in telling a tale of woe, and the prose sparks as a result. At times he comes across as a man for whom the glass is not only half empty, but is in fact lying on its side, the contents already running off the table and into his lap. Luckily for us, this ability to weave the trials and tribulations of his life into a good yarn makes for entertaining and genuinely funny reading, and as a narrator it’s what makes him such great company. In my view it’s also what makes him one of the great english diarists.

If this book sounds interesting, you may also like a similar work of Gray’s from the 1990’s called Fat Chance. This book chronicles the saga of his play Cellmates, a piece which seemed sert fair to be a critical and commercial West End success, until co-headliner Stephen Fry mysteriously disappeared…

Gray wrote the following at the end of An Unnatural Pursuit: “perhaps the problem with keeping a diary, and the reason I’ll never keep another, is that one records only the things that one would prefer to forget. At least if one has a temperament like mine”. Luckily for us he never kept his word.

Quick post script: How’s That for Telling Them Fat Lady? is also the title of a television play Gray wrote for the BBC in the early 90’s and is well worth watching if you ever get the chance. Starring Gray’s good friend Alan Bates doing his best impression of the author, the play essentially follows the action as described in the book.