The Long Goodbye (1953) is the sixth of seven mystery novels by Raymond Chandler featuring Los Angeles P.I. Philip Marlowe. Some see it as the pinnacle of Chandler’s career as a mystery author, while others see it as less powerful than The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, two early novels.
Whatever its power, it may be the most personal of Chandler’s novels, or at least we get a more personally engaged Marlowe here. Much of the novel involves Marlowe trying to help out an unlikely friend, a wealthy drunk, Terry Lennox. Earlier Marlowe novels do not show Marlowe getting emotionally involved with clients or with anyone else. He has a friendship with a man in the DA’s office named Bernie Ohls, but that is more of an acquaintanceship than a friendship.
In a letter to his editor, Bernice Baumgarten, which accompanied a draft of the novel, Chandler expresses his growing dissatisfaction with the formulaic nature of detective fiction, a genre he had become weary of. A paragraph here is significant:
“It has been clear to me for some time that what is largely boring about mystery stories, at least on a literate plane, is that the characters get lost about a third of the way through. Often the opening, the mise en scene, the establishment of the background, is very good. Then the plot thickens and the people become mere names. Well, what can you do to avoid this? You can write constant action and that is fine if you really enjoy it. But alas, one grows up, one becomes complicated and unsure, one becomes interested in moral dilemmas, rather than who cracked who on the head. And at that point one should retire and leave the field to younger and more simple men.”
I cannot help but think that the final swipe was aimed at people like Mickey Spillane who had become quite popular in the 1950s, while the more cerebral Marlowe had lost some steam as Chandler’s own disenchantment in the genre, disgust with life in Hollywood, and continued dependence on alcohol took their toll.
As a mystery novel, The Long Goodbye is not as sharply written as his first novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. At times, you get the sense of Marlowe as some guy just hanging around waiting for something to happen. But we do have Marlowe’s attraction for Terry, a friend for whom he is willing to take risks. Marlowe’s fondness for Lennox is peculiar — there is nothing about Lennox that seems to justify such loyalty as he elicits from Marlowe and others. The book opens with Marlowe reminiscing over his first meeting with Lennox, the way a person in love would recall that first meeting. Marlowe also has a chance at romance with a Linda Loring, a woman tangentially involved in the investigation of Lennox’ past. So we have Marlowe getting close to two people, where no such closeness was evident in earlier adventures of this lone knight riding down the dark streets of LA, the city of fallen angels.
The relationship with Lennox does not develop, and there is only a hint that the relationship with Loring may develop. Linda Loring reappears in Chandler’s next and last novel, a weak effort called Playback, and shares the bill with Marlowe, now her husband, in the unfinished Poodle Springs. It is intriguing to wonder how Chandler might have played with the idea of a lonely man in a committed relationship, had death not cut his efforts short. I think that Chandler was largely played out when he got to this novel, and that he envisioned The Long Goodbye (as the title suggests) as his own farewell to the genre. But Linda Loring seems to give the cynical Marlowe, vulnerable and wounded, hope for the future, and perhaps her relationship with Marlowe would have turned the tide for Chandler. We’ll never know, as Chandler died a few years after the publication of The Long Goodbye. It was only with the help of Robert B. Parker, the author of the Spenser novels, Chandler’s more romantic follower, that the married couple of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Marlowe come to life.
Even late Marlowe such as this retains some of the vinegary bite of the early stuff. Marlowe, in two separate passages takes aim at modern symphonic music and its aficionados. In a catalog of blondes, which begins, “There are blondes and blondes, and it is almost a joke word nowadays…”, Marlowe snidely dismisses the “brainy” blonde, who reads “The Waste Land or Dante in the original.” “She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.” And later, unable to sleep because he’s pondering a case, he notes: "At three A.M. I was walking the floor listening to Khachaturyan working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it."
Some say that The Long Goodbye is too loosely constructed, and too sentimental, and they may be right. But Chandler was never much for tight plotting, but could scarcely be beat in setting up a scene and for the crispness of his language, an ability he still demonstrates in the penultimate work of his career.
If you want to check out Marlowe on video, I’d recommend Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep with Bogart as Marlowe, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Marlowe, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould as Marlowe, and for a truly bizarre viewing experience — I watch it every Christmas as part of my Christmas ritual — Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake with Montgomery as Marlowe.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.