review: the long goodbye

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

The Long Goodbye is the sixth novel in Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective fiction series featuring the iconic Philip Marlowe.  This book has been on my to-read list for a long time.  It’s been nearly three years since I read the previous book in this series, The Little Sister, and this has been one of those books that I started, got about 100 pages into, and put down for a long while before starting again and finishing it.  I previously wrote in a review that I thought The Little Sister was the “odd” one in the series; The Long Goodbye doesn’t deserve that description, but it has a different feel to it than the others.

Although Marlowe is recognizable as the character we’ve come to know up to this point in the series, he’s also different.  Older, yes.  He is thirty-three in the first book, The Big Sleep, and now it is nine years later. He is still the man who wants to do the right thing, but doing the right thing doesn’t mean being the knight (as was the metaphor in The Big Sleep).  Like in The Big Sleep, doing the right thing comes at a personal cost to Marlowe, but even more than that, by the end of the novel, that gray space between black and white in which he operates is an even darker shade of gray.  It took me a while to understand how the title came about and what was its significance.  Near the end, Marlowe makes a reference to a French saying–each time you say goodbye you die a little.  Marlowe’s actions in the novel represent his way of saying goodbye to a man he considered to be a friend.  It is, indeed, a long goodbye, and yet in the last pages of the book I got the sense that it wasn’t just his friend Marlowe was saying goodbye to, but an actual piece of himself, a part of him that has died in the effort to do what he felt was right.  Marlowe isn’t lost, he just isn’t the same and never will be.

Like the best examples of the genre, the storyline of The Long Goodbye is complex and layered.  On the top layer is Marlowe’s initial meeting of Terry Lennox.  Lennox is married to Sylvia Potter,, the daughter of a wealthy newspaperman, and her murder is the catalyst that sets everything in motion.  Lennox, of course, is suspected of the murder, and for reasons entirely his own Marlowe makes a choice that bring him to the attention of the police, who want to charge him as an accessory after the fact.  The world that Chandler has created in this series stays true to form, presenting the police force as being rife with corruption and more concerned with closing cases and building careers than pursuing justice and capturing the person actually responsible for the crime.  The police in this book are depicted as being even more brutal (and inept) than previous novels, as Marlowe himself is the target for their brutality and and what he has always seen as a systemic coercion of suspects to implicate themselves in order to stop further abuse and forced into making false confessions and statements.  Marlowe does not comply, and though it would be easy to say that this is the reason for my sense that we have a “colder” Marlowe in this book, that’s not the reason.  He brushes off the time he spends in jail and the police brutality as part of the normal, the everyday.  Others have been treated this way and now it is simply his turn for the same treatment. Eventually, though, this part of the storyline ends–or seems to–and Marlowe moves on and we get a second, deeper layer to the story.  Marlowe takes on a case that involves a popular writer, Roger Wade, who has gone on a drunken binge and disappeared.  Marlowe takes the case from Roger’s wife, Eileen Wade, who is the book’s femme fatale and whose beauty draws Marlowe’s attention instantly.  She is temptation throughout the story.  Like Marlowe’s endeavor to say goodbye to a man he called a friend, his struggle to resist the temptation of Eileen Wade as well as the part he plays in the lives of the Wades wears on him and claims another piece of him.  His methods for bringing justice to those who have committed a crime are merciless and without sympathy.  One character says to Marlowe that he isn’t very sympathetic.  His response is “Why should I be?”.   Marlowe has always been drawn as a man who gives sympathy where it is deserved.  The character is right, he isn’t sympathetic in that particular moment, but he doesn’t lack sympathy.  I also don’t think he is incapable of mercy.  I think this is important because it would be easy for Marlowe to lose those two qualities in the world in which he lives and works, and in so doing he would be no better than the law enforcement he despises.  He doesn’t cross the line in this book, but there is the sense that he has been pushed closer and closer to it, using methods at this point in his life that maybe he wouldn’t have resorted to when we first met him in The Big Sleep.

The Long Goodbye isn’t an easy, simple read.  I’ve lived in the world of academia and heard a lot of dismissals of hardboiled detective fiction as a “popular” genre with little to no “literary” value.  I’m not saying that The Long Goodbye is an “important” book, but it is thought-provoking and presents a protagonist who is not only at odds with the world in which he lives but is also at odds within himself.  It definitely has the feel of a book that is trying to hold up a mirror to society and critique what it sees reflected back.  There are times when the critique is heavy-handed and for a 21st century reader it is at times misogynistic.  It is also at times a little fatalist and maybe even a little nihilistic.  It is a good read, however, a good read and it gives further depth to Marlowe, making him just a little bit more complex, a little bit more isolated, a little bit farther from the traditional image of the knight but accepting that the modern version of a knight–his version at least–is simply just doing the best he can.