Perhaps I’m missing something.
For instance, there’s Robert Altman’s 1973 film of “The Long Goodbye,” which starred Elliott Gould as a mumbling Marlowe, a suit-and-tie-wearing anachronism surrounded by strung-out hipsters. Even glummer is Lawrence Osborne’s 2018 novel, “Only to Sleep,” in which a 72-year-old Marlowe, retired to Baja California, decides to take one more shuffle down the mean streets of crime. Add to these deliberately anachronistic homages the Chandler resurrections written by the likes of the late Robert B. Parker and Benjamin Black (a.k.a. John Banville) that conjure up further adventures for Marlowe within his own time period of the late 1930s to the early ’50s.
Joe Ide would seem to have a pretty good shot at writing a decent Chandler homage. Like Chandler, Ide is known for writing hard-boiled novels that exalt style over plot. He’s written five books starring private eye Isaiah Quintabe — “IQ” for short — a Black investigator working in East Long Beach. Ide boasts an insider’s knowledge of Southern California (he grew up in East Los Angeles) and has been explicit about his reverence for Chandler. Unfortunately, apart from its moody, Chandler-esque title and a main character called Philip Marlowe, “The Goodbye Coast” has as much connection to Chandler’s novels as Rome, N.Y., has to Rome.
The opening chapters adhere to the familiar formula: Marlowe is summoned to the Malibu home of a narcissistic minor movie star named Kendra James. “She looks like Grace Kelly without the grace, thought Marlowe,” in one of the novel’s better lines. It’s a missing-person case. A few weeks earlier, Kendra’s cheating husband, Terry, was shot dead on the beach outside her mansion, and Terry’s daughter from a previous marriage — a 17-year-old named Cody — has vanished. Marlowe locates Cody easily enough and stashes her for safekeeping in his widowed father’s cramped house in South Central L.A. because someone has been taking potshots at her.
You read that right. Ide’s Marlowe has a father: His name is Emmet, and he’s a homicide detective who’s been put on leave because alcohol has gotten the better of him since the death of Marlowe’s mother. A Philip Marlowe “of woman born” rather than the lone knight of Chandlerian myth? Just as we readers may be trying to wrap our heads around that notion, another missing-persons case complicates the story. Ren Stewart is a literature professor teaching in England whose ex-husband, an aspiring actor, has kidnapped their young son and hidden him somewhere in L.A. Marlowe takes the case, mostly because Ren looks like a “young Charlotte Rampling.” (Alert Chandler fans will recognize the allusion to the not-bad 1975 film “Farewell, My Lovely” starring Rampling as Helen Grayle and Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.)
Thus ensues a double-helix plot — composed of a secondary cast of sadistic Armenian gangsters — that twirls and unwinds; twirls and unwinds, until it ends abruptly and anticlimactically. No matter, right? As I’ve said, Chandler’s own novels and stories rate a B-plus at most when it comes to plotting. What does matter in any worthy Chandler tribute is language (in particular, those over-the-top metaphors), atmosphere and an all-encompassing vision of “a world gone wrong.” In “The Goodbye Coast,” those essential elements reappear in faint and flattened form. Here, for instance, is Ide’s Marlowe reflecting on L.A.:
“Marlowe drove on. LA was an ugly city. It had no character, no texture, no architecture, nothing to engage you. LA was a hot, endless flatland of streets, telephone poles, strip malls, gas stations and dry cleaners. Some places were brighter and had taller buildings, but you could hardly call that charm, character, or even interesting … Marlowe had lived here all his life and had never once taken the long way home.”
Call it “a world gone crappy.”
The urge to enlarge Marlowe’s caseload is understandable. Who among us doesn’t wish that Chandler had written more than 7½ novels? But unless such reinventions are done with wit and lyricism — as Ide’s own IQ series is — they would be better not done at all. For those pining for more Marlowe, there’s always the pleasure of rereading the originals. And, for any Chandler fans who haven’t read it yet (as I didn’t until a month ago), I strongly recommend “The Annotated Big Sleep,” which came out in 2018. In this edition, every single page of “The Big Sleep” is accompanied by deeply informed, lively commentary on Chandler’s life, Los Angeles in the 1930s, and smart and snappy literary criticism. It’s not a new Marlowe novel, but it’s a pretty fine consolation prize.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and a professor of literature at Georgetown University.
The Goodbye Coast
Mulholland Books. 320pp $28
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