The Long Goodbye
Vintage Books, 1988
First Line: The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers.
I am perhaps doing myself a bit of a disservice by skipping Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the 1930 novel originally serialized in Black Mask, which even Chandler admits helped throw open the doors on the hard-boiled detective novel. The focus of my project is on Chandler’s template for the hard-boiled detective a fact that invalidates Hammett’s Sam Spade. As such I am starting with Raymond Chandler’s own iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. My first exposure to Phillip Marlowe was in college where I took a class on American Crime Fiction and read the utterly fantastic The Big Sleep, probably the most well known of all the Marlowe books. This time around I went with The Long Goodbye a slightly more twisting tale that manages to squeeze in some social commentary amidst the murder, mystery and mayhem.
The Long Goodbye opens with PI Phillip Marlowe helping a drunk stranger, the pale scar-faced Terry Lennox, out of a drunk jam. The beginning chapters of the novel focus on building an on again/off again friendship between the drunken Lennox and the oddly altruistic Marlowe who consistently helps Lennox out of trouble without ever asking for anything. Of course, things take a turn for the worse and after Lennox is accused of murdering his socialite wife, daughter of a notoriously reclusive millionaire newspaper owner, and himself winds up dead Marlowe finds himself suddenly embroiled in the lives and vices of several area socialites.
Chandler is a master of character, voice and description. I would go so far to say that he is one of American’s most underrated novelists. His ability to describe scenes from a simple room to a one-on-one fight is unparalleled. The latter, evidenced in the confrontation between Marlowe and the unbalanced associate of a shady psychiatrist, is pulled off in an elegantly choreographed scene that is at once both sparse and utterly evocative:
…In passing I blocked his left foot from behind, grabbed his shirt and heard it tear. Something hit me on the back of the neck, but it wasn’t the metal. I spun to the left and he went over sideways and landed catlike and was on his feet again before I had any kind of balance. He was grinning now. He was delighted with everything. He loved his work. He came for me fast.
The balance between description of the fight itself and characterization of the opponent is night on perfect as far as I’m concerned. The shift from Marlowe’s own all-business tactical blow-by-blow into the almost poetic cadence of the repeated “he” sentences that form the scene’s crescendo is a wonderful touch. As mentioned Chandler is also equally adept at simply setting a scene:
The shutting of the french windows had made the room stuffy and the turning of the venetian blinds had made it dim. There was an acrid smell in the air and there was too heavy a silence. It was not more than fifteen feet from the door to the couch and I didn’t need more than half of that to know a dead man lay on that couch.
The details are bare yet the scene is surprisingly complete. Without details Chandler manages to set the scene with tone rather then fact letting the imagination of the reader fill in the rest. It is an impressive effect and, as I’m sure Chandler was well aware from, far from the intricate set-up of the British style scenery he was set against.
Indeed the tone of the novel is one of consistent gloom. Marlowe is driven by a moral compunction to do what is right but at the same time is actions, demeanor and thoughts take on an aimless air. The narrative are peppered with some rather depressing, yet poetic thoughts from Terry Lennox’s “just killing time….it dies hard” to Marlowe’s “To say goodbye is to die a little.” Indeed the New York Times review (April 25, 1954, Criminals at Large) says “On the whole, despite occasional outbursts of violence, it’s a moody brooding book, in which Marlowe is less a detective than a disturbed man of 42 on quest for some evidence of truth and humanity.” Needless to say, this isn’t a happy book. It is bleaker then one might expect and given the socialite setting and characters it is a rather scathing look at high society and, in a broader sense, humanity at large.
This isn’t a by-the-numbers detective novel by any means. It works within the confines of its genre to explore a rather bleak outlook on humanity; an espousal of Chandler’s own words from the Simple Art of Murder: “It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.” It is that last which is explored the most thoroughly. Mark Coggin’s does a much better job in his lengthy essay Writing the Long Goodbye in illuminating some of the more biographical history behind Chandler’s creation of the novel, aspects that echo The Long Goodbye’s own fictional novelist Roger Wade’s plight. It isn’t hard to see Wade’s writing as an echo of Chandler’s thoughts on his own craft. As Roger Wade writes: “The moons’ four days off the full and there’s a square patch of moonlight on the wall and it’s looking at me like a big blind milky eye, a wall eye. Joke. Goddam silly simile. Writers. Everything has to be like something else.” The Long Goodbye at least isn’t really like anything else and is all the better as a result.