In the world of fictional detectives, few are as well thought of, certainly as an archetype, as Philip Marlowe, creation of Raymond Chandler. He is the conscience of a gritty amoral world that deludes itself with fictions of justice and worth, that melt under the harsh lights of avarice, hubris, and folly. Characters dream big, connive, lie, and strut, all in a futile effort to exert control where there is none. Roll it in murder and add a disdainful sceptical detective and you find the perfect vehicle in which to see the world as it is.
Or as Chandler did.
Much is made of the fact that The Long Goodbye is perhaps the most autobiographical of Chandler’s Marlowe series. It is definitely the longest and the most meditative and vitriolic in its social commentary. His wife’s sickness, his alcoholism, and his struggles to finish the book, along with his desire to break out of the limitations of the genre can be seen in the characters and arc of the story.
At its core the book is about writers and books and how they are often not what we at first think.
The story begins and ends with Marlowe’s friendship with Terry Lennox, a sad fated man with an adulterous wife, whom is suspected of killing before he kills himself. Marlowe, through his friendship with Lennox, is thrust into the affair and its attendant consequences. The middle of the story concerns Roger and Eileen Wade, a drunk writer and his troubled wife. In addition there are crooks, cops, imperious rich men and flunkies. That they are all connected is typical of the genre and of Chandler’s particular brand of plotting.
A number of reviewers have noted the length of the book and its sometimes meandering pace. I think that was deliberate. If you step back and view it less as a straight up detective novel and more as a literary book that happens to have a detective as a character, then the meditative nature of the book begins to come through. Chandler was known to have bristled at the notion that crime novels, noir, cannot be literary, and to me, this explains the tone the book.
Lennox is a nice metaphor for the book just as Roger Wade is for the writer. Much is made of similarities between Chandler and Wade, and that may be true, but it is also a meditation on being known, being famous for, and then a captive of, a particular genre. Wade’s books are steamy romance novels that sell, but that Wade comes to despise as well as the closeted world of wealth and privilege he can’t escape. The book that Wade can’t seem to finish, that Marlowe is asked to help Wade complete by mediating his baser impulses, is like Lennox, present in thought, but defined more by desire than fact.
Though not thought of as literary fiction, The Long Goodbye is in fact that, with its jaundiced meditations on justice, wealth, and corruption ably communicated by Marlowe, Wade, the Cop Bernie Ohls (a reference back to The Big Sleep, the novel that made Chandler famous, but also boxed him in), as well as others in that crisp bright dialogue and prose Chandler is celebrated for. There is also the interior struggle of Marlowe to be something more honest, less venal, than those he comes in contact with. That Marlowe is solitary, remote, plays well into the theme of writer, observer; a chronicler of the moral decline he sees around him.
In the end, that Lennox, paradoxically like the book, is not what he at first seemed, is fitting given the lyrical landscape of the book, and while Marlowe claims to judge not, his every biting word is judgement rendered.
The question for the reader, is what is being judged.
©2019 David William Pearce