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One does not generally think of THE GREAT GATSBY (1925) as a mystery. I have never seen it on any list of the classics of crime fiction. None of the 119 contributors to BOOKS TO DIE FOR (reviewed elsewhere in RTE) consider it as a crime novel (though Dennis Lehane mentions, in passing, its vision of America); certainly it was not off limits since A TALE OF TWO CITIES appears there. Yet Fitzgerald's masterpiece is, among other things, a superb crime novel. In fact, we have two separate mysteries contained within its not quite 50,000 words. I presume that the novel is so well known that I am merely refreshing readers' memories as I try to persuade them to look at the novel as detective fiction. If there actually remain people who have never read the book or seen the several movie versions, they need to take notice that spoilers lie ahead.
The novel's importance to the genre struck me forcefully while I was rereading, back to back, Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP (1939) and THE LONG GOODBYE (1953). It is not just the echoes of Fitzgerald in the first novel and the explicit allusions to him in the far better and more complex second one. Rather it is the way both books essentially retell the same basic myth that Fitzgerald created in GATSBY. Though Chandler reconstructs the patterns with major differences among the roles his characters play, once again we have the constellation of the first person narrator, Nick Carraway (Philip Marlowe), Jay Gatsby (Rusty Regan and Terry Lennox), Daisy Buchanan (Vivian Regan and Sylvia Lennox/Linda Loring/Eileen Wade), Tom Buchanan (no one and Roger Wade/Dr. Loring), Meyer Wolfsheim (General Sternwood and Harlan Potter), and Jordan Baker (with something of a stretch, Carmen Sternwood and Eileen Wade).
The first mystery in Fitzgerald's novel is that presented by the title character: who is Jay Gatsby and how did he become so wealthy? As Nick says, "young men didn't - at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn't - drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound." To Nick he looks like "an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd." He seems "a little sinister." As Nick is taken into Jay's confidence, he starts putting together pieces of the puzzle, sorting out the truth from various subterfuges that Jay creates. The reader learns a bit at a time how Jay was groomed to work as a front to shady businesses conducted by the gangster Meyer Wolsheim, "the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919."
By Chapter Six of the nine-chapter novel Nick has fleshed out the story of how James Gatz became Jay Gatsby as a result of meeting Dan Cody at age 17 and in the best Horatio Alger fashion reinventing himself, though retaining the hint of his gangster-like name (during those bootlegging years "gat" was common slang for a weapon). What I had forgotten until I was leafing through the pages again is that we actually have yet another, unsolved, mystery embedded within this one: exactly what happened to Cody? Nick laconically notes that Jay's rather fluid relationship with the rich yacht owner "might have lasted indefinitely except for the fact that Ella Kaye came on board one night in Boston and a week later Dan Cody inhospitably died." And she got all the money, including that left to Jay, leaving him only a photograph of his former employer, "a token of forgotten violence." The war provided further polish, including five months at Oxford as a good will gesture on the part of the British government. Meyer had only to add the finishing touches when he encountered Jay's continuing pursuit of "his incorruptible dream" of wealth.
But Daisy's golden voice sang the siren's song that provoked Jay's ultimate undoing. The second major mystery is the identity of the driver who killed Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, in a hit and run accident. Nick intuits the truth and Jay confirms it. But Jay takes the rap when Myrtle's husband seeks vengeance and turns to Tom for direction. Tom from the onset is depicted as arrogant and cruel, a brute who feels no remorse when he conveniently eliminates the threat that Jay poses to his security. Wilson murders Jay and then kills himself, leaving no one to mourn save Nick. Meyer lets Nick know that he "cannot get mixed up in this thing now." Nick, however, is a man who (to use Chandler's words about the detective hero who walks the mean streets) "is neither tarnished nor afraid." Like Marlowe with Terry Lennox, he accepts that "I was responsible, because no one else was interested - interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right at the end."
In my pairing with Chandler characters I have made Jordan Baker seem more sinister than she is in Fitzgerald's novel. Still, Nick records that she is "incurably dishonest," and in her careless driving she foreshadows the manner in which Daisy kills her sexual rival. The rest of the people of East Egg and West Egg, Long Island, the old rich and the new rich, are equally ruthless people, as corrupt as those whom Chandler chronicles a continent away and a few decades later in Los Angeles, home of the fake world of Hollywood, whose facade was anticipated by Jay's impossible mansion. No wonder Fitzgerald could feel at home there. It is even possible that his and Chandler's paths crossed at their favorite bar.
THE GREAT GATSBY went out of copyright in 2011. Amazon.com lists more than a score of different editions either already or soon to be available, including audio books and e-books, with an equally impressive range of prices. The one listed above is the old standby from the firm that originally published the novel. The two Chandler novels are also readily available in a variety of editions.
§ Drewey Wayne Gunn is Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. He once assigned The Great Gatsby as the core text for his students in a literary criticism class to try out various critical approaches on, but he blushes to admit that he never thought to examine it as a forerunner of the hard-boiled school of detective writing.
Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, November 2012
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