Vintage Crime, 1953, 379 pages
Down-and-out drunk Terry Lennox has a problem: his millionaire wife is dead and he needs to get out of LA fast. So he turns to his only friend in the world: Philip Marlowe, Private Investigator. He's willing to help a man down on his luck, but later, Lennox commits suicide in Mexico and things start to turn nasty.
Marlowe finds himself drawn into a sordid crowd of adulterers and alcoholics in LA's Idle Valley, where the rich are suffering one big suntanned hangover. Marlowe is sure Lennox didn't kill his wife, but how many more stiffs will turn up before he gets to the truth?
This was my first novel by Raymond Chandler about his famous detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is probably second only to Sam Spade as the most famous of hard-boiled detectives. Both were played by Humphrey Bogart.
The Long Goodbye is actually the sixth Philip Marlowe novel. This struck me as I read it, because most modern detective series, by the sixth book, will have accumulated a supporting cast of recurring characters and references to previous cases. But Raymond Chandler seems to write each book as a stand-alone, and this could just as easily have been the first appearance of his private dick.
(I know, I know. I couldn't resist.)
Marlowe is a tough guy, but not a superhero. He exhibits the sort of cool, masculine imperturbability that has gone out of fashion, despite spending most of the book being threatened by more powerful men. He's a self-described lone wolf and Chandler is economical in giving him distinguishing personality traits.
"I'm a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I'm a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don't like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I'm a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life."
The Long Goodbye starts as two unrelated cases that naturally converge. First, a rich drinking buddy of Marlowe's shows up in trouble — his wife has been beaten to death, and naturally he's the prime suspect. Marlowe doesn't believe his friend did it, and helps him get to Mexico (without actually breaking the law, since technically he does not know for a fact that his friend is currently wanted). This lands him in all kinds of trouble, with everyone from the cops to hoodlums to the dead woman's super-rich father trying to intimidate him. They want to pin it on her husband, and they want to pin Marlowe as an accessory, and they certainly don't want him poking around and questioning the official story.
Marlowe guts it out, as hard-boiled detectives do, shrugs off the various threats and beatings, and then gets asked by a New York publisher to investigate what's bothering their biggest cash cow, a best-selling writer of schlocky historical romances. The author lives in idle seclusion in an exclusive enclave called Idle Valley, where he seems to be drinking himself to death, and going into alcohol blackouts in which he allegedly threw his wife down some stairs.
A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.
Marlowe doesn't take this story at face value either, and continues to get threatened, cajoled, and seduced by various parties, none of whom really want him to uncover the truth. Eventually the two cases converge, at first the way you think they will, but with a few twists thrown in.
The Long Goodbye is full of gangsters, crooked cops, tough guys, and hot blondes, but what made the book was Marlowe's stoic, principled, noble-in-spite-of-himself attitude, and Chandler's writing.
There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo’s rapier or Lucrezia’s poison vial. There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn't care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provençal. 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 lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap Antibes, an Alfa-Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.
I really liked this book. I expected it to be dated and hoary with old detective tropes, but the plot veered and swerved between lively characters, Marlowe was a stand-up guy who makes you understand why everyone wanted to be Bogey back in the day, and I suspect that like many authors who insert a tormented author into the plot, Raymond Chandler was putting more than a bit of himself into the alcoholic writer Roger Wade, who has married a stunningly beautiful wife, makes huge amounts of money, and feels unworthy and not living up to his talent.
A great read, which makes me want to go back and start with The Big Sleep.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
This 1973 Robert Altman film, starring Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, annoyed the heck out of me, but other than the fact that it radically changes the plot (especially the ending), I wasn't sure why. Director Robert Altman "updated" the story from the 1950s to 1973 Hollywood, where Marlowe skulks about like a chain-smoking ghost of the past, out of place in a hippie California with an apartment full of naked nymphs as neighbors who are usually cavorting about in a drugged daze outside his window.
It was stylish and a little slow, and sometimes just goes weird places.
The Wikipedia article is enlightening. The screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett (who is better known nowadays as the screenwriter for Empire Strikes Back) and apparently neither she nor Robert Altman had much affection for Raymond Chandler's writing or the original story. (Altman never even read the entire book!) Thus, the movie is a satire and a subversion of the genre, which makes more sense. Viewed that way, it is rather humorous, but certainly it's got little of the style of the book.
Verdict: A classic detective story that holds up well if you liked hard-boiled noir. Few writers have really improved on the classics of the genre, and Raymond Chandler is fun to read, as Philip Marlowe hobnobs with the rich and crazy and spars verbally with cops and gangsters. The Long Goodbye is a good introduction to the character even if it isn't the first in the series. 9/10.
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