Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

Moscow was a low city. From the river it almost disappeared into its own somnolent ether. (p.65)

Tall, gaunt Moscow criminal investigator Arkady Renko is a disappointment to his father, the cranky old war-hero general; a disappointment to his bitch of a wife, Zoya, who is openly having an affair with a colleague and trying to divorce him; and a disappointment to his friends, who don’t understand his lack of ambition.

Three bodies are found dead in Gorky Park, the pleasure park complete with funfair and ice-skating ponds which borders the river Moskva in central Moscow. They have been shot at close range, then had their faces removed with a skinning knife and the tips of their fingers cut off to prevent identification. The three had been skating and are still wearing their skates.

Gorky Park is the long, densely written, fiercely imagined account of Arkady’s investigation into the bizarre murders, a thread which – in the best thriller tradition – leads to the unravelling of a bigger conspiracy which draws in the KGB and CIA. Along the way we are introduced to a large number of colourful and persuasive secondary characters, but the book’s main achievement is to take you right inside a brilliant depiction of Cold War Soviet Russian society. (It is set in the spring and early summer of 1977.)

The Russian background

is stunningly authoritative, deeply researched, totally convincing. It is not just the organisational structure of the KGB or Moscow militia, the relationship with the Ethnographical Institute or city prosecutors and lawyers – the kind of organisational knowledge an author like Len Deighton is so expert at – It is the way Smith inhabits the tired, jaded, everyday relationships between the workers in all these places, captures the mundane routines and tips and tricks and bypaths of such a society. It takes the kind of repartee you get in familiar American cop shows and sets it in a completely alien environment, utterly there.

I don’t know whether ‘Fuck your mother!’ is a common Russian expletive or whether there really is a ‘Siberian Dilemma’ (You are in Siberia fishing on a lake through a hole in the ice -the ice breaks and you fall in – do you stay in the water and freeze to death in a few minutes or get out into the -40 degree air and freeze to death immediately? p.214) or whether urka is the name for Russia’s tattoo-covered professional criminal class (p.75) – but every aspect of the novel’s Russianness – from the street layout of Moscow, the description and feel of different parts of the city at different times of day and night, the crunch of the snow and then the spring flowers breaking through, the taste of the cheap vodka, the squalor of state apartments, the constant bugging and surveillance, the horrible food in the cheap cafes, the fear and tension surrounding the presence of KGB officers, above all the Russian repartee of all the characters – all of it is thoroughly persuasive.

Characters

Arkady is a sort of hero: but although as honest and upstanding as Philip Marlowe, he is also cold as a fish, continually calculating, trying to read the runes and uncover the true murderer. In the early part of the novel Smith artfully surrounds Arkady with a penumbra of related characters:

  • Zoya, his cold wife, full of hatred for him, openly having an affair with a colleague, Schmidt, then later interrupting tense moments in the narrative to bother him about the divorce she is instituting
  • Pasha, his foul-mouthed competent assistant investigator
  • Flet, another investigator imposed on him and pretty obviously a KGB stooge reporting back to…
  • Major Pribluda, the stocky, aggressive KGB man who hates Arkady from when the latter correctly accused him of murdering a pair of dissidents two years earlier, as a result of which Arkady was beaten up by mysterious assailants, and the case quashed.

The plot – part one

Arkady gets little Professor Andreev, so short he compares himself to a dwarf, head of Moscow’s Ethnographic Institute, to reconstruct the face of one of the victims, a ticking process which accompanies the early investigation and promises much. Meanwhile, forensics show that a) one of the corpses had dental work of a type only done in America b) the corpses’ clothes carried traces of gold and gesso associated with religious paintings and icons, as well as specks of chicken blood and meat.

When Arkady puts out an all-Russia alert for missing persons a call comes through from distant Siberia that a local hoodlum, Kostia, and his moll, Valerya Davidova, have been missing for a while. Meanwhile, the female corpse’s skates have a name inside, that of Irina Asanova, who reported the skates stolen a few months earlier and works on the set of the Moscow film studios. In a separate strand, Arkady is taken by his boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, to an elite sauna and steam-room for the exclusive use of KGB and senior officials. Here he is introduced to the smooth, suave John Osborne, a tanned, silver-haired American, who swaps barbed comments with him.

As he delves deeper he discovers Osborne has been in and out of Russia since the War when, as a young man, he was involved in channeling support to America’s brave ally against the Nazis. Even in those early days he was making important contacts with influential Russians, especially in law enforcement and the KGB. Things begin to come together when photos emerge of Osborne in Siberia at a farm for sables, the slinky wild mammals whose fur is tremendously valuable. Then the police in Siberia reveal that Kostia and girlfriend at one time worked in a local sable farm.

Via his underworld contacts Arkady finds black marketeer, Golodkin, who complains that John Osborne commissioned him to find an icon chest, an antique covered in religious imagery and containing distinct drawers, only to dump him at the last minute and not buy it. Does Arkady want to buy an antique icon chest? No. But when Arkady orders his colleague Pasha to go with Golodkin to his apartment, they are both shot dead. Arkady is clearly on the right track…

The plot is complicated (very complicated) by an unprovoked attack on Arkady while he is back in Gorky Park one night, re-imagining the murders. He is badly beaten then narrowly escapes being shot by a well-disguised assailant. KGB? Underworld mobster? Foreign agent? Takes a number of further twists before Arkady discovers it is one William Kirwill, a New York detective. He has traveled from the States to investigate the murder of his younger brother, James.

A further distraction/complication is the way Arkady finds himself – upset and hurt by his wife’s abandonment – falling for the angry but vulnerable Irina – and then discovering she has some kind of relationship with the sleek American Osborne.

Through the mesh of numerous further twists, turns and nailbitingly intense scenes Arkady pieces together the story.

Memorable scenes

include:

  • Irina being mugged in the Moscow underground and placed on the railway lines with 2 minutes till the next train as Arkady does battle with her two assassins
  • Arkady driving out to meet his father, the General, old and frail but still seething with anger
  • Arkady smuggling himself out of Moscow on a train north packed like a cattle truck with stinking, smoking, leering convicts heading for Siberia (pp.256-249)
  • His convalescent home is threatened by a sudden forest fire and Arkady finds himself thrown into the chaotic fiery confusion of trying to fight the flames (pp.282-285)
  • Kirwill killing a KGB agent with his bare hands by battering his skull to pulp (p.229) The book is not for the squeamish

The story is

American John Osborne has made a lot of money using his important contacts stretching back to the war to conduct various import-export deals to Russia. But his secret plan has been to get hold of and smuggle live sables out of Russia – the fur-exporting capital of the world – and set up his own breeding programme in the States. Given how quickly sables breed, and how much their pelts are worth, within five years he will have a sustainable multi-million dollar business.

Kostia and Valerya brought him the live sables stolen from a Siberian farm, but they wanted more. In exchange for supplying an icon chest big enough to smuggle the sables in, they also wanted to be smuggled to the west, to freedom. James Kirwell was a young born-again Christian Osborne came across in his travels and brought to Moscow to show Kostia and Valerya how easily he could move people in and out of the USSR. Thus assured they gave him the sables and the chest and set off with James for a happy afternoon skating, before a rendezvous when Osborne was to meet them with vodka, sausage and details of their escape route. Instead, he shot all three of them quickly, with a gun hidden inside the bag of food and drink, the final victim, Valerya, so paralysed by fear she couldn’t run.

But Arkady’s unravelling of the mystery is hampered throughout by the heavy-handed interventions of the KGB. His boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, is fully supportive of him and invites Arkady out to his dacha in the country where, in a vivid scene, we watch him call eider ducks across the frozen lake and feed them while pledging Arkady his support. Later, as the net tightens, Iamskoy calls him in and reprimands him for the increasing number of corpses (Pasha and Golodkin, his childhood friend Misha) he’s leaving in his wake and tells him to hand over the case. Arkady refuses and, in the climactic scene of part one, he is ambushed by Osborne’s sidekick, the German Unmann, and badly stabbed in the gut before himself stabbing Unmann then drowning him as they both fall into and struggle in a pool in the grounds of Moscow University where Osborne has lured him.

Unable to break free, Unmann tried to bite, and Arkady fell back, carrying the man down into the water with him. There the German sat on top, squeezing Arkady’s throat. He looked up from the bottom of the pool. Unmann’s face grimaced, fluttered, divided, ran back together and split apart like quicksilver, each time less coherently. It broke into moons and the moons broke into petals. Then a dark cloud of red obscured Unmann, his hands went slack and he slid out of view. (p.260)

With Unmann dead, Arkady, bleeding badly, surfaces from the pool only to find his superior, the man who has backed him without hesitation, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, pointing a gun at him. Goodbye Arkady, he says, you were always my best investigator: there is the bang of a gunshot but it is Iamskoy who collapses, the top of his head blown off. It is Irina who has shot him. Run, says Arkady – and collapses…

Part two

The 70 pages of part two take the novel beyond ordinary intense, fast-paced thriller territory into a strange place, for Arkady takes a long time to recover from his severe belly wound and this section follows his recuperation in tremendous detail, the days and nights watching the ceiling of his hospital room as he drifts in and out of drugged sleep; then the increasingly aggressive visits of various KGB agents to question him.

And then he is moved out to a rest home in the country where, of all people, Major Pribluda is assigned to stay with him. Slowly the two men, while continuing to hate each other, form an edgy respect. When Arkady is well enough to walk he accompanies Pribluda, who is of true peasant stock, down to the garden of the house where the Major sets about creating a vegetable garden, taking off jacket and tie to labour long and hard for days on end to prepare the soil, hoe and turn it, before planting seeds of radish and lettuce, then creating an elaborate irrigation system and weeding his plot. All the time the pair exchange memories of life in Soviet Russia, clash over the pair of dissidents Arkady knows Pribluda murdered, discuss the details of the Gorky Park case.

Throughout this section Arakdy overhears nurses, KGB men smoking and playing cards, and even Pribluda saying – it doesn’t matter what you do or think, Renko. You are going to be shot.

Part three

Except he isn’t shot. To his (and the reader’s) surprise he finds himself on a plane to New York. The KGB have spared his life so he can do a deal with Osborne, now safely back in the States. I must admit, at this stage I stopped understanding what was going on. What deal? Osborne is safe in his own country with the sables, he doesn’t need anything. It emerges that Irina is with him; they let her go; she has been sleeping with Osborne all along and she ‘made’ them let Arkady come to her. Why? So they can be together because she loves him. OK. But why is Osborne letting her have Arkady? And why are the KGB letting Arkady go to the States? So he can track down the sables and kill them?

And why, then, do the KGB hand Arkady over to the CIA who set him up in a cheap whore’s hotel and follow him about, while they figure out what their deal is with Osborne.

Free to come and go as long as he returns to the hotel, Arkady meets up again with Kirwill who squires him around the Big Apple. In a bit of a plot hole, out of the entire vast pullulating city, it is rather a stroke of luck that a drunk lowlife trying to sell a black polecat he trapped in a remote part of Staten Island comes to Kirwill’s attention. It is a sable and Kirwill immediately realises Osborne must have set up his sable farm not far away.

It is the CIA operatives – Wesley, George and Ray – who take Arkady out to Osborne’s sable farm the next day. Here, at the sable farm on Staten Island, there is a bloody shootout.

For a start the arriving CIA and Arkady find Kirwill’s body bound to a tree and eviscerated, his guts hanging out his belly (p.357). Osborne did it. ‘He shot my dogs,’ he yells, more than a little demented on his home turf. A little later Arkady finds the crook who was trying to sell the sable, himself shot through the head. But as they approach Osborne over the snow, with no warning he shoots dead two of the CIA agents, one flees, Arkady throws Irina to the ground and runs off into the farm buildings.

Thus begins a deadly cat and mouse game between Arkady and Osborne between the cages of the mewing, screaming sables. George, the remaining CIA agent, pops up to try and shoot Arkady but Osborne shoots him. Then – in a wild surprise – one of the more friendly KGB agents, Rurik, appears looming over Arkady with a gun. He, too, is shot dead by Osborne who is using a hunting rifle with a scope. Nobody who knows about the sables is going to be allowed to escape alive.

Except that, although shot himself, Arkady manages – like all thriller heroes – to have the luck, energy, stamina – and the author’s helping hand – to nail Osborne, by this stage epitome of decadent, capitalist greed and evil. He uncages the sables and as Osborne shouts ‘No’, flings one of the creatures at him and in that moment drops to his knees and fills Osborne full of lead. How very OK Corral the whole scene has been. How very American.

In the final pages Irina pleads with Arkady for him to stay in the Free World she has always dreamed about. No. I am a Russian. I am going home, says Arkady. Home to star in the five sequels Smith wrote to this classic, long, involving and thoroughly imagined masterpiece.

Style

American prose is quicker, American writers pack more information into their sentences and paragraphs. At its worst – as in a lot of contemporary US fiction – this means depth or resonance of language or psychology disappear from the texts which become, as a result, worthless. But, at their best, American writers are confident to skip, jump and compress language to get to the nub of the matter without a lot of the preliminary throat-clearing and harumphing which (older) British writers mistakenly think of as ‘fine writing’.

In this respect Smith is a poet. He continually reminded me of the English poet WH Auden for the insouciance with which he throws off casually striking metaphors and imagery in snappy sentences, dense with charged similes and metaphors.

Levin caught up at the elevator and slipped into the car with Arkady. He had been a chief surgeon in Moscow until Stalin shook Jewish doctors out of the trees. He held his emotions like gold in a fist. (p.13)

Almost all Russia is old, graded by glaciers that left a landscape of low hills, lakes and rivers that wander like the trails of worms in soft wood. (p.120)

After Kirwill beats Arkady up in the park –

Arkady pulled himself out of a drift and staggered, holding  his chest. Trees and snow sucked him down to a stone wall… Truck lights sailed along the sweep of the quay road. He could see no one walking. No militiamen. Streetlamps were furry balls, like the bubbles of air he gagged down. (p.64)

Sometimes a wind catches a parade banner and the face painted on the banner, with no change in expression, shivers. In Osborne’s eyes Arkady saw such a tremor. (p.148)

In the communications room, two sergeants with loosened collars typed out radio messages that came in snatches, bits and ends, invisible litter from the outside world. (p.178)

By about half way through (in an evolution which reminded me of something similar which happens, as the tension builds up, in Ira Levin’s thrillers) Smith’s style allows itself to become more and more impressionistic and poetic. Frederick Forsyth, say, remains journalistic to the end, reporting clinically, factually, accurately. But in the fight in the bloody pond which ends part one, throughout the dazed diary entries of Arkady’s long painful recovery in part two, and then in the intense final scenes set in a New York as seen by a complete outsider to everything western or American, Smith’s prose is liable to splinter into intensely imagined, hallucinatory fragments.

Pribluda was the one man who didn’t speak, the one who was content with silent menace, a warted brooding under wetted hair. (p.266)

Arkady said nothing. Over the field were the triumphant screams of small birds mobbing a crow; they were like a bar of music moving through the air. (p.277)

The fire was unpredictable. One bush would catch slowly like a biscuit of fuses. (p.283)

The density of a lot of the language, its charge and intensity, the clipped brevity with which it throws out drastic insights, radical perceptions, added to the complexity of the plot, make for an intense and – unusually for a thriller – sometimes quite a difficult read. Difficult to read at speed. And worth rereading whole sections, maybe in a year or two, the whole book.

The movie

The book was quickly turned into a movie (1983), directed by Michael Apted with a screenplay by Dennis Potter. William Hurt is well-cast as the flat, unemotional Arkady, Lee Marvin is charismatic as the rich killer Jack Osborne, Brian Dennehy is big and mean as William Kirwill and Joanna Pacuła is pretty but unconvincing as Irina Asanova. There is an enjoyable supporting cast of British character actors including Ian McDiarmid, Michael Elphick and Ian Bannen.

Like all movies, this one massacres the plot of its source novel, completely deleting part two where Arkady recovers from his knife wound – there is no fight in the university pool and no wound -and transferring the final section from New York – where Kirwill is at home and shows Arkady round, which thus balances the Kirwill-in-Moscow scenes – to the much cheaper and easier-to-film-in countryside around Stockholm. The whole thing screams ‘limited budget’.

The direction is flat, not one frame stands out for beauty or care of composition, it often has the rough ‘that’s good enough’ feel of a TV adaptation. The music, by James Horner, starts with an effective and chilling set of stabbing rattles on some kind of bamboo-sounding percussion, but the majority of the film is disfigured by the fashionable 1980s sound of thumping synthesised drums and banal one-note synthesiser rock, until the final ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of Arkady parting from Irina are served up in a syrup of sub-Doctor Zhivago strings. Judge for yourself.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

‘I need a drink,’ Spencer said. ‘I need a drink badly.’ (The Long Goodbye Chapter 42)

This is a long book about alcohol and alcoholics.

At 464 pages in the current Penguin edition, The Long Goodbye is by some margin the longest of Chandler’s novels. There is the same tough guy attitude as in the earlier novels, the same obsessive notation of eyes and looks (‘They had watching and waiting eyes, patient and careful eyes, cool, disdainful eyes, cops’ eyes.’ Ch. 6), the same smart similes (‘I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.’ Ch. 13) – but they are less frequent, less helter-skelter than in the taut, supercharged Big Sleep and other earlier novels. All spread across a much bigger acreage of more relaxed, more reflective prose.

Discursive

What distinguishes TLG is its discursiveness: it feels a lot more rambling and long-winded than all the previous books. Whereas in an earlier book he would have been just lighting a cigarette when the phone rang, in this one he has three consecutive customers come into the waiting room and tell him all their woes at length, and then Marlowe reflects on the sorry role of the private eye – and only then does the phone ring and the plot resume.

So passed a day in the life of a P.I. Not exactly a typical day but not totally untypical either. What makes a man stay in it nobody knows. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot or tossed into a jailhouse. Once in a while you get dead. Every other month you decide to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting-room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money. (Ch. 21)

The world-weary tough guy attitude is still there, but it all moves slower and longer. Eg Marlowe has to track down an absconded alcoholic husband, finds a note by the abscondee mentioning a Dr V, speculates that he is being looked after by a crooked dope doctor whose surname starts with V, spends chapter 15 visiting a friend in a big intelligence company who has files on such doctors, then spends chapters 16, 17 and 18 slowly visiting three crooked doctor Vs, and then chapters 19 and 20 ‘rescuing’ the missing husband and driving him home to his wife. It is all very enjoyable, and the pen portraits of the three doctors are vivid and funny, but that’s 5 chapters just to track a guy down.

In a similarly discursive mood, Chandler takes a couple of pages in chapter 13 to give us a memorable typology of blondes, irrelevant to the plot, but interesting colour. This unbuttoned, rambling chapter is also the one in which he gives Marlowe a famous self-description:

‘I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. the cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.’ (Ch. 13)

Loosely phrased, isn’t it? Long sentences, particularly the last one which wears out its welcome before it ends. Whereas the earlier books described things, this one reflects on them, thinks about them – which makes it an enjoyable experience but in a different way.

Changing times/changing crimes

Chandler began writing stories for pulp magazines in 1933 when what was required was blondes and guns and quick bang-bangs and Jimmy Cagney was the screen gangster. The twenty years between then and 1953, when The Long Goodbye was published, saw incredible changes – the Second World War and the Holocaust and the atom bomb and the Cold War – along with the post-War rise of American consumer culture which transformed the settings of the stories, the lifestyles and vocabulary of its characters.

If the earlier books were (very high quality) entertainment, The Long Goodbye is all that with elements of social history which give it a new interest. In particular, the criminalisation of American society which must have seemed a startling new development in the 20s and 30s has settled in to become the American character.

‘I don’t like hoodlums.’
‘That’s just a word, Marlowe. We have that kind of world. Two wars gave it to us and we are going to keep it.’ (Ch. 3)

‘We all made plenty in the black market after the war.’ (Ch. 11)

Makes me think of The Godfather which covers the period 1945 to 1955 when the mafia entrenched its control of crime and diversified into all kinds of ‘legitimate’ business ventures until it becomes all but impossible to tell the difference between Big Business and Big Crime.

‘There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks,’ Ohls said. ‘Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut from under them and had to sell out for nickels, decent people lost their jobs, stocks got rigged on the market, proxies got bought up like a pennyweight of old gold, and the five per centers and the big law firms got paid hundred grand fees for beating some law the people wanted but the rich guys didn’t, on account of it cut into their profits. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system. Maybe it’s the best we can get, but it still ain’t mu Ivory Soap deal.’
‘You sound like a Red,’ I said, just to needle him. (Ch. 39)

In fact the criminals, the big time criminals, are treated with a sort of respect; they are smooth, urbane, confident like Mendy Menendez, and Marlowe enjoys his antagonistic back-chat with them. Chandler’s acid cynicism is reserved for the so-called ‘honest’ professions, for doctors and lawyers and, above all, the police. The depiction of American police as violent, stupid and corrupt is far more terrifying than that of the criminals.

Opinions

Chandler’s dyspeptic view of society is on show more than ever. He was complaining about the sexualisation of his society in the 1940s. It’s only got worse:

Once in a while in this much too sex-conscious country a man and a woman can meet and talk without dragging bedrooms into it. (Ch. 22)

What we nowadays call the media fare no better:

  • I threw the paper into the corner and turned on the TV set. After the society page dog vomit even the wrestlers looked good. (Ch. 3)
  • [An old chess game he plays through is] a battle without armour, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. (Ch. 24)
  • ‘I own newspapers but I don’t like them. I regard them as a constant menace to whatever privacy we have left.  Their constant yelping about a free press means, with a few honourable exceptions, freedom to peddle scandal, crime, sex, sensationalism, hate, innuendo, and the political and financial use of propaganda.’ (Ch. 32)

Technology:

There is something compulsive about a telephone. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it, loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish. (Ch. 27)

Just people socialising comes in for stick:

It was the same old cocktail party, everyone talking too loud, nobody listening, everybody hanging on for dear life to a mug of the juice, eyes very bright, cheeks flushed or pale and sweaty according to the amount of alcohol consumed and the capacity of the individual to handle it. (Ch. 23)

(Another long sentence which starts off with the old brio but fizzles out into banality.) And the Law/ the whole apparatus of law enforcement and justice?

‘Let the lawyers work it out. They write the laws for other lawyers to dissect in front of other lawyers called judges so that other judges can say the first judges were wrong and the Supreme Court can say the second lot were wrong. Sure there’s such a thing as law. We’re up to our necks in it. About all it does is make business for lawyers.’ (Ch. 43)

Psychiatrists are given a hammering in chapter 44. And then there’s the stupid gullibility of his own countrymen:

The coffee was overstrained and the sandwich was as full of rich flavour as a piece torn off an old shirt. Americans will eat anything if it is toasted and held together with a couple of toothpicks and has lettuce sticking out the sides, preferably a little wilted. (Ch. 45)

(Side note: the McDonald brothers reorganized their business as a hamburger stand using production line principles in 1948, and Ray Kroc joined as a franchise agent in 1955, before buying them out and turning McDonalds into the worldwide business with annual revenues of $27.5 billion we know and love today.) Not many aspects of contemporary American life escape Marlowe’s withering criticism. Take advertising, a boom industry in post-War America:

‘Getting so I don’t care for the stuff,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’s the V commercials. They make you hate everything they try to sell. God, they must think the public is a half-wit. Every time some jerk in a white coat and a stethoscope hanging round his neck holds up some toothpaste or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer or a mouthwash or a jar of shampoo or a little box of something that makes a fat wrestler smell like mountain liclac I always make a note never to buy any.Hell, I wouldn’t buy the product even if I liked it.’ (Ch. 46)

Bitch bitch bitch. But the real theme of this book is alcoholism.

Self portraits as an alcoholic

Chandler was an alcoholic, chain-smoking 65 year-old when the book was published, and most of it was written while his beloved wife Cissy suffered her final illness. His age, his weakness, her illness, all seem to have encouraged the tendency to rambling reflectiveness, about life, about his characters, about his work.

The plot is not as convoluted and improbable as in the earlier books, in fact it’s relatively simple: so why is the novel so long? Because it rotates and repeats around the figures of the two central male figures, lost, depressed, demoralised crashing alcoholics who draw Marlowe into their ambits to make up a drunk trio who have the same repetitive, getting-nowhere, long conversations about life and booze and broads.

  • The alcoholic war hero Terry Lennox, scarred and aimless but good-natured – the opening 3 or 4 chapters are about the friendship Marlowe strikes up with him and they announce the tone of the novel with their meandering, unrushed portrait of a very male friendship.
  • Richard Wade, the spoilt alcoholic writer who, despite his commercial success writing genre novels (‘He has made too much money writing junk for half-wits.’ Ch. 13), has come to doubt his entire career and is facing crippling writer’s block. (‘All writers are punks and I’m one of the punkest. I’ve written twelve best-sellers… and not a damn one of them worth the powder to blow it to hell.’ Ch. 23)

Marlowe seems to have the same rambling conversation with Richard Wade about six times, each time Wade getting drunker and more abusive till he passes out. Marlowe’s repeated visits out to the Wade place to ‘help’ him don’t make any sense, specially as he explicitly turns down the job of being Wade’s minder: they just allow Marlowe/Chandler to make the same kind of remarks about the awful empty lives of the rich and successful who spend their time getting drunk and being unfaithful to each other, obsessively repeating the actual process of getting drunk in words.

Everyone drinks too much in Chandler’s books, but in this one Marlowe for the first time starts drinking in the morning and the narrative persuades us that’s OK. At a key moment when Mrs Wade is trying to seduce him, he breaks free but instead of going home, goes downstairs in the Wade mansion and drinks a bottle of scotch till he passes out. In all the other books, although events were always ahead of him, nonetheless Marlowe was sharp and alert and eagle-eyed. In this one he seems strangely passive, unable to prevent the deaths of his friend Lennox or the drunk writer he’s sort of hired to protect.

From the repetitive drunk structure, to the drink problems of the three male characters, though to a score of vignettes of excess alcohol consumption, the whole book reverts obsessively to images of drink and drunkenness.

There was a sad fellow over on a barstool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you it would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world. (Ch. 13)

There is much to enjoy here, Chandler’s unique style is still priceless – but the meandering repetitive structure of the plot embodies and re-enacts the tedious repetitiveness of the alcoholic. The same drunk again and again and again, the same moans and whines and bitching which can only be ended by a bullet in the head.

Raymond Chandler’s novels ranked by length

  • Farewell, My Lovely 320 pages
  • The Lady in the Lake 304 pages
  • The Little Sister 304 pages
  • The High Window 288 pages
  • The Big Sleep 272 pages
  • Playback 208 pages

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