Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Long Good-bye

I grew up on a diet of detective stories - courtesy of my parents & their weekly trip to the Library - & science fiction - courtesy of my brother, 12 years older, who left his books behind when his work transferred him to a year's post in some provincial town in New Zealand.

Through their combined efforts the platform for my subsequent reading was made up of writers such as Chandler & Hammett, Dick, Bradbury, Clarke, Kornbluth & Sturgeon. (I first read Borges in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.) I don't read much SF these days, probably only J.G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling plus I regularly re-read Samuel Delany, but I still read detective stories & buy each new book by John Sandford & Sara Paretsky & James Lee Burke & Martin Cruz Smith & a handful of others, although part of the reason for that may be that this range is one of the few that interest me that are stocked by the local bookshops. (Poetry? What's that?)

I have just finished reading a Chandler compendium of three novels featuring his famous "hard-boiled private eye" Philip Marlowe. I haven't read them in what must be decades, though in the interim I must have seen the celluloid interpretations of Bogart & Mitchum & Dick Powell many times.

I still think Chandler is a great writer, but what I had previously not been consciously aware of was how racist & homophobic he was. The first two novels, The Big Sleep & Farewell, My Lovely, both written pre-Second World War, are full of denigating terms & a disdain for Chinese, Japanese, Afro-Americans & Mexicans. This racism is not so evident in The Long Good-bye, written in the early fifties, although this may be in part due to the setting of the novel. But his homophobia is still very much present.
'I had a male secretary once. Used to dictate to him. Let him go. He bothered me sitting there waiting for me to create. Mistake. Ought to have kept him. Word would have got around I was a homo. The clever boys that write book reviews because they can't write anything else would have caught on and started giving me the build-up. Have to take care of their own, you know. They're all queers, every damn one of them. The queer is the artistic arbiter of our age, chum. The pervert is the top guy now.'
This cannot be excused as characterisation because Chandler put too many speeches about things he obviously believed in in the same mouths. & I have probably not picked up on this before because in my much earlier readings & re-readings I did not consider such attitudes to be morally reprehensible. & re-reading my own earlier work - not so much the poetry but the reviews & essays I did - I discern some of the same attitudes there. Not homophobia, but there is evidence of sexism, &, in one piece that freaks the shit out of me now, is the descriptor 'n*****-minstrel', without the asterisks, a phrase that now horrifies me & makes me ashamed that I ever could have used it.

It tarnishes me as a person, it poisons my past. Let me just say, years later but far too late, I apologise.

1 comment:

AlexG said...

one wonders what Chandler & the other homophobes of his era wd think of the flourishing genre of gay detective writing.