Thursday, June 07, 2012

A Great Opening 20

Robert B. Parker, somewhere in the Spenser series, wrote, "Caffeine, like youth, is wasted on the young." I would add great fiction to his list and call myself guilty.

 I'm rereading a book I haven't picked up in 15 years, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, and realize now –after reading The Big Sleep many times – that this is Chandler's masterpiece.

 I am particularly intrigued by the opening three chapters. As opening lines go, this one is no Last Good Kiss: "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers." Lennox even manages to leave Marlowe for several months at a time throughout the book, yet the narrative never slows.

How does Chandler do it? No crime. No case. Nothing at stake for Marlowe in the opening 20 pages. In fact, in these opening 20 pages, Chandler deviates from everything one comes to expect from this author and from our genre. The book doesn't open with a crime, and no one hires Marlowe. Instead, the novel opens with a drunk, once-wealthy character, Terry Lennox, who admits he married his ex-wife for her money. A sympathetic character? Certainly not on the surface, but there is a pathos in these opening pages that Chandler doesn't typically get credit for. There is something about Lennox that speaks to Marlowe, and when the protagonist is captivated by this down-and-out character, so is the reader, establishing the opening chapters' narrative tension.

 So, again, how does Chandler do it? Readers feel for Lennox. "The steps were still tough on him, but he grinned and panted and made the climb." The grin does it for me. Lennox has nothing left, but he won't quit. Marlowe sees this and won't quit either. It's character over action and plot, and Chandler has us asking questions and wanting more.

 Check out The Long Goodbye if for no other reason than to read a great opening 20 pages.

1 comment:

harry fall said...
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