Thursday, April 17, 2008


by Libby Hellmann

Raymond Chandler is perhaps one of our finest prose poets, and his talents are on full display in THE LONG GOODBYE. Not only is his prose elegant, rhythmic and supple, but he can imbue a simple description of a person or place with such a philosophical or sociological perspective that you will never again think of that person or place the same way. Add in his plot twists, one-of-a-kind characters, and noble themes that sneak up on you unawares, and you have a master not just of crime fiction, but of modern American literature.

So it may seem harsh, even petty, to bring up what some consider his Achilles' heel. And I hope I do this in a wry but affectionate way. But the fact is that Chandler was not a woman’s man. A man of his time, he portrayed women as either victims, sex objects, or evil temptresses. True -- other crime fiction authors of the era were more misogynist, but Chandler doesn’t redeem himself much in this regard.

One passage in THE LONG GOODBYE, in which Chandler riffs on blondes, is especially noteworthy. Reading it still feels a little like nails against a blackboard, but I’ve reprinted (most of) it below.

All blondes have their points…. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo’s rapier or Lucrezia’s poison vial.

There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review.

There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and… very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because… she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provencal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.

And lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap Antibes, an Alfa Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.

With the acute realization that I’m not even close to Chandler’s skill level, I nevertheless decided to have some fun at his expense. Here’s my attempt to turn the tables by re-writing the passage from a woman of today's POV.

All men have their points…. There is the guy with the cute ass who struts and swaggers, and the deltoid-rich hunk who checks you out with a dull, vacuous stare. There is the stud who gives you a charming smile full of attitude and reeks of Opium and opens doors for you but is always very very tired when you get back to your place. He flashes you a sad but slightly smug look and tells you he has an early morning meeting and you want to slug him except that you are glad you found out about the meeting before you invested too much time and money and hope in him. Because the meetings will always come first, and the commitment won’t, and you’ll be sitting at home alone with a pound of chocolate and a bottle of wine wondering what you did wrong.

There is the drunk who doesn’t care what he drives as long as it’s your car, or where he goes as long as it’s a bar and there is plenty of booze. There is the friendly glad-handler who is your pal but wants you to pay your own way and knows everything there is to know about men and women and relationships and has a black belt in Tae Kwan Do and is your best friend until someone prettier or richer or smarter and can recite Hank Aaron’s at-bat stats walks into the room.

There is the pale, pale man who looks like Truman Capote with a dark suit and silk scarf and he speaks softly and you can’t touch him because he knows everyone and their personal peccadillos too. He reads The Waste Land or Dante or Kafka or Kierkegaard – in their original language – and he’s studying Chinese. He’s into rock and when the Stones come to town, he will have front row seats and will tell you exactly when Keith Richards comes in a quarter of a beat too late. They say Elton John does that too. That makes two of them.

And lastly there is the young Richard Gere look-alike who will outlast his girlfriends and then marry an older wealthy woman and end up with a ski chalet in Gstaad, a beach house in the Grand Caymans, a Lear Jet complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of Arabians (both equine and human), all of whom he will treat with the diffidence of a patron in a white tablecloth restaurant nodding to the busboy.

So, what do you think? (Be kind...)

Anyone else want to give it a try?

PS. It's probably fitting that I'll be guest blogging on The Lipstick Chronicles tomorrow. Check it out.


Sara Paretsky said...


Barbara D'Amato said...


Doug Riddle said...

Pretty cool.

But I have to ask...are we to assume that everything that Marlowe said about women were actually Chandler's opinions? Or was this only the character speaking?

I am sure that are many authors who would be horrified if we were to think everthing their characters said, were their opinions.

Libby said...

Excellent point, Doug. Particularly given Chandler's relationship with his wife, Cissy. We all channel our characters onto the page. Still, the women portrayed in TLG aren't -- at least to me -- fully realized human beings. They're foils for Marlowe, Wade, and Lennox and so take on the characteristics Marlowe needed them to.

Sara Paretsky said...

Chandler idealized his relationship with Cissy when talking about her, especially after her death, but considering how often he went off with his secretary for long weekends during the Thirties, it's not clear how much he respected her when they were together.

Libby said...

Before I forget, I want to give a shout-out to the Muse who sits on the other end of the telephone and actually puts up with my reading first drafts -- and usually has a great suggestion or two -- some of which have been incorporated into this blog. Thank you, Judy...

Picks By Pat said...

Wow, not bad! In fact, very good. Now I think you should write the rest of the novel, from a woman detective's point of view.

You could call it, "The Short Goodbye".

Dana King said...

To me, what really makes that passage is the brief paragraph that follows:

The dream across the way was none of these, not even of that kind of world. She was unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as its color.

I always read the entire description as the somewhat bitter musings of a man (Marlowe, but admittedly channeling Chandler) who has had his heart broken more often than he cares to remember, by all the blond archetypes he describes, but still has hope, brought to the surface by the indescribable beauty just glimpsed.

One question: How come, when describing Chandler's misogynistic tendencies, no one ever remembers Ann Riordon from FAREWELL, MY LOVELY?

Sara Paretsky said...

Anne Riordan, yes, indeed. She's the foil to Velma the Vamp--she's too pure for Marlowe to touch, even though she tries to get him to make love to her--he's Daddy, he knows better, he nobly backs away so that she won't join the world of the spoiled--women like Velma, "who could make a bishop kick a hole through a stained glass window." I like the women in Farewell My Lovely because they are such perfect paradigms of women's roles in much of western mythology: Eve/Mary Velma/Anne, and so on and on

Anonymous said...

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