The Long Goodbye

the long goodbye chandler

Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was published in 1953 and is the penultimate book featuring the famous "hardboiled" private detective hero Philip Marlowe. Chandler considered this to be his best work (although critics and fans would probably disagree and favour Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep) primarily because of the more personal nature of the text. His wife was terminally ill at the time and The Long Goodbye is longer and more heartfelt than previous Marlowe novels with more of Chandler's own personal thoughts and experiences expressed within the story by proxy characters.
Despite his status as one of the great American popular authors, Chandler was actually raised in England where he received a classical education and this part of his background always gave him something of a sniffy cynical outsider's view of Los Angeles and Hollywood. The quality is more and more apparent in Marlowe as he navigates the corrupt neon drizzled city streets once again.
The story begins in 1949 with Marlowe encountering a drunken man who has collapsed outside a nightclub. The man is named Terry Lennox and his wife has driven off, leaving him (quite literally) in the gutter. Marlowe helps the man and gives him a lift back to town, some coffee and money to get home. A week later, a sober and smart looking Lennox returns to Marlowe's office to pay back the money he owes him and the two become casual friends, occasionally meeting up for a drink at a bar they like.
However, one morning Lennox arrives at Marlowe's house looking deeply concerned and very frazzled. "The persistent ringing of the doorbell yanked me out of bed. I plowed down the hall and across the living room and opened up. He stood there looking as if he hadn't slept for a week. He had a light topcoat on with the collar turned up and he seemed to be shivering. A dark felt hat was pulled down over his eyes."
Lennox announces that he has to get out of the country as soon as possible and asks Marlowe to drive him to the Mexican border. Marlowe does as he says, deliberately trying to keep his beak out of the precise details of this emergency as much as possible, but on his return is arrested by the police. It transpires that Lennox's wife was found dead and Marlowe is now a suspect by association. Marlowe is released after a brutal interrogation, returns to his office and reluctantly takes on a new case when he is hired by a woman named Eileen Wade who is trying to get her novelist husband Roger out of a dubious sanatorium. But Mrs Wade seems more interested in asking questions about Terry Lennox than the welfare of her husband. What is going on?
The Long Goodbye marks a slight direction change for Chandler and even begins in unusual fashion as it is Marlowe himself who goes to aid Terry Lennox and unwittingly embroils himself in a mystery. We are used to the detective being approached by enigmatic clients who he doesn't trust so it's quite surprising to see our distrustful loner hero going out of his way to help a stranger early on.
It's an interesting idea to give Marlowe a tarnished soulmate and Roger Wade also functions in this capacity more or less when introduced later in the story. The Long Goodbye is not really about the mystery at the heart of the book but still manages to thrive at its best with Chandler's sardonic dialogue and the supporting cast of characters. In a strange way you learn more about Raymond Chandler than Philip Marlowe in the book. Characters speak for Chandler while Marlowe tends to keep his own emotional cards close to his chest.
One can see reading these novels how Marlowe influenced Ian Fleming when he wrote his James Bond series. Bond and Marlowe are both heroes who have to teach themselves not to care too much in order to do their jobs properly and Fleming's violent hardboiled pulpy style feels very Chandler at times. One thing Chandler and Fleming possibly had in common was a feeling that they were not taken seriously by their literary peers because of the genres they chose to write in. Crime fiction was not considered to be serious literature and it rankled Chandler to think that people might be snotty about his books because of this. Chandler was pretty snotty about science fiction novels though if memory serves.
In 'The Long Goodbye', Chandler uses the character of Roger Wade to express his own thoughts about this cultural snobbery. Wade is a writer himself but not taken seriously because he writes romantic fiction. Wade feels like a considerable proxy for Chandler in the book as he's a man with a drink problem who is finding it harder and harder to complete novels as he grows older and also battling self-doubt and personal demons. A description of Wade in the novel feels uncomfortably like Chandler (very) harshly assessing himself. "He was a bit of a bastard and maybe a bit of a genius too. That's over my head. He was an egotistical drunk and he hated his own guts. He made a lot of trouble in the end and a lot of grief."
Wade writes a suicide note in the book that tries to articulate the feelings a personal breakdown would leave one with and it feels like a complete stylistic departure for the author and is unlike anything Chandler ever wrote. Dark and dreamlike. He even chides himself for stupid similes. Chandler's thoughts about money, wealth and society are interesting in the book although they do unavoidably run the risk of stating the bleeding obvious at times and Chandler was a fairly wealthy man himself - at least by most standards anyway.
You could argue that The Long Goodbye is longer than it needs to be (knocking on for 400 pages in paperback) but it all depends how connected one is to these books by now. If you are a fan of the Marlowe series you'll be happy to get a longer than usual running time and be rewarded with some memorable moments and lines. There is a great passage in the book where some goons threaten Marlowe and tell him he's an anachronism and nobody in the grand scheme of things. It's a nice example of Chandler's ability to create low league criminal characters of the era in reasonably believable fashion. The sense that Marlowe is increasingly a relic of another time is something the author and character are both aware of.
Chandler's descriptive qualities are still of a high standard and as ever it's not so much the mystery that we've come for but rather the sense of time and place that the author creates. "When I got home I mixed one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires."
While The Long Goodbye feels a trifle self-conscious in parts, this is a moving novel that rewards the reader who has been paying attention to the series and is always content to slide back into the world of Philip Marlowe through his sarcastic first person narration. I prefer Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep but this is an interesting and for the most part strong later addition to the series.
- Jake

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