By Lawrence Osborne
I’m not a big reader of crime novels or mysteries. I think it’s mostly that they make me feel stupid, because I never figure out whodunit it in what I’d regard as an acceptable timeframe. I’m just no good at that game.
Raymond Chandler is one of the few exceptions. I can listen to the voice of Philip Marlowe endlessly; to this day, it makes me feel like I’m sitting on a couch, flanked by three or four or five of my brothers and sisters, watching Humphrey Bogart or any number of other leading men play Marlowe in the dozen or so movies made of Chandler’s novels. In film, The Big Sleep is my favorite, because it’s the only one Bogie made. In the novels themselves, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye vie for the crown. Reviews of these are coming attractions in this space.
But today we take the measure of the third Marlowe novel written by someone other than Chandler, as the request of his estate. After John Banville (aka Benjamin Black) and Robert B. Parker (who also finished Chandler’s last Marlowe after his death), Lawrence Osborne takes a crack. In my view, he’s done a creditable job. The atmosphere, the diction (with an exception here and there) and even the pace of things seem just about right. It felt at times like I was sitting on that couch. I didn’t mind that the story is set in Mexico, or that Marlowe is older than he ever was in Chandler’s books. The Puerto Vallarta of 1988, and what’s missing from its glory days of the 1970s, are accurately conveyed. I miss the streets of Los Angeles, but find it totally believable that Marlowe would be drinking his way through retirement in the Coronado Cays (I know people who’ve done some of that!) and Baja. If anything, I question the several passages where Marlowe’s allegiance to his client wanes, or worse; these stopped me up short, because I don’t recall anything like that in the Chandler books I’ve read or films I’ve seen. Most importantly, the voice of the novel is there—in the dialogue, and in the first-person narration and introspection.
Speaking of the voice of a novel, FictionFan—who’s from the UK—said of my own Atlantic View (https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2020/07/15/atlantic-view-by-matthew-geyer/):
“There is a distinctively American style to Geyer’s prose – what I think of as West Coast writing, though I’m no expert. It’s a kind of specific vocabulary that in itself creates a sense, not perhaps so much of place, but of a culture and, dare I say it, a class – educated, liberal, moderate, introspective, male (though that may simply be that my limited reading of American fiction hasn’t covered women writing from the same cultural perspective). While I often find this language style more ‘foreign’ to my British ears than many other American regional variations, I find the attitudes far more in tune with the overarching culture of western Europe and that always makes it easier for me to empathise with the characters.”
So, what about this “West Coast writing”—what exactly is it, where does it come from, and why is it so familiar to even the British ear? I ask here in the context of a new Philip Marlowe novel written by another contemporary Brit, following Chandler’s lead in terms of style, no question. And I believe many would find a bit of “West Coast” sense or style in it; and if I’m right, what is it we recognize as “West Coast writing” about it, and why?
Could it be tied to the fact that this particular style is akin to one used by so many Hollywood screenwriters from Chandler’s generation, and not just in their novels but in their screenplays? From the 1930’s through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the lion’s share of American movies—and probably most of the English-speaking world’s movies—were written and produced in Hollywood, where people like Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and even William Faulkner went often to find a steady paycheck, not just after the Depression but after the Second World War and through the broad middle of the 20th Century. And who watched those movies they wrote? Not just Californians or people on the West Coast, but people all over the States and well beyond. Whether it was Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy or John Wayne, or Joan Crawford, Betty Davis or Ingrid Bergman on the screen, the script was written by writers on and largely of the West Coast, well into and even through the Golden Age of Hollywood.
My grandmother lived in Hollywood, and the motion picture studios were everywhere. Every year, she brought her home-made Christmas cookies to our house in two of the largest cookie-jars I’ve ever seen—thirty-five-millimeter film cans the size of wagon-wheels.
I guess what I’m positing here is: Hollywood gave our generation, wherever we lived, more than just those cookie jars. It spread West Coast-style far and wide.
By Maya Jasanoff
I need to admit something right up front. I had meant to be reviewing Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s twenty-four-players-without-a-scorecard novel set in Costaguana, a fictional country in South America. Two hundred impenetrable pages in, with three hundred more to go, I took a break to browse in a bookstore.
It’s a used-books store, called op. cit. here in Santa Fe. Crammed floor-to-ceiling with books, sporting obstacle-course piles in nearly every aisle, the good folks who run it are always willing to juice my account with a few bucks credit for used fiction I’m not saving in the bookcase. I dropped a few of these at the counter and headed into the stacks. I soon found myself fingering spines in the Biography section, unusual territory for me.
There must be dozens of biographical works on the life of Joseph Conrad, who was being lionized while he was still alive and died nearly a hundred years ago. They didn’t have all of them, but they did have one from the 21st Century – 2017, in fact—by a Guggenheim Fellow who teaches at Harvard. Just five minutes paging through Maya Jasanoff’s fine and lucid prose had me walking out with it.
Jasanoff tells the story of Jozef Teodor Konrad Korseniowski’s childhood in Poland, losing his father early and being supported by his uncle, his emigration to England as a young man to work sailing vessels and eventually steamships while writing in their close quarters. But she also tells the story of all the major novels he wrote, in accounts far more lucid than any of them, including Nostromo. After pleasurably reading all the way through her three-hundred pages of text (and a select few of the eight-hundred-and-fifty footnotes), I decided to try Lord Jim instead. Both these books, along with The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, made the Modern Library’s List of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.
Lord Jim has a manageable number of characters. It is burdened somewhat by overuse of the semi-colon and long, winding paragraphs, largely because large swaths of the novel are narrated by the actual live testimony of the first mate of a ship abandoned by its captain and crew to avoid going down with the passengers. Except the passengers were saved, the captain ran away, and the first mate—once held in such high regard by the rest of the crew as to be called Lord Jim—was left to be crucified by court trial.
It’s slow going for this sailor. But it’s very cool reading it from the First Modern Library Edition, 1931, lent by my younger and smarter brother who’s read Conrad’s whole canon. I might get through it by Christmas . . . but I’m not saying which Christmas.
Finally, I came across this item last week, and it’s worth sharing. The link below is to a one-hour televised debate from 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, debating at Cambridge University the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
The best 25 minutes are Baldwin’s, of course—which start at 14:00, and he’s just amazing—and then the last minute or two, when the votes are counted. That said, Buckley is pretty fun to watch, too, chasing his tail, tying himself up in knots, and doing the weird thing with his eyebrows.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .