Raymond Chandler had an idea that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to turn a detective novel into serious literature. The Long Goodbye is apparently his attempt to do just that. While the effort may fascinate students of the Chandler oeuvre, it brings no guarantee that ordinary readers will be similarly enchanted. So a respected scholar can label the book “a classic American detective novel” (as in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, p. 116), make an argument for its literary importance, but not actually urge fans of the genre to rush out and get a copy.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Houghton Mifflin (1954), 316 pp.
Philip Marlowe, now in his mid forties, meets a thoroughly drunk Terry Lennox outside an L. A. restaurant. Lennox is a scarred and prematurely white-haired World War II vet who lives off his wealthy wife Sylvia. She sleeps around but he’s too demoralized to care. Marlowe responds to Lennox’s buried sense of wounded pride, and the two become friends of a sort. One day Lennox shows up and asks for a ride to the airport in Tijuana. It turns out that his wife has been murdered, he’s the likely suspect, and he wants to skip the country. Marlowe takes him to Mexico and later refuses to tell the police about the trip. He’s beaten by the cops and thrown into jail. After his release he learns that Lennox has killed himself in a small Mexican town. Marlowe is warned on all sides to forget about Lennox, but his next job makes that impossible.
Marlowe has changed a lot since his pre-war appearance in The Big Sleep. He’s still the solitary seeker after justice, close to no one and dedicated to his work. But his narration has lost its sparkle. Almost gone are the clever word-play and the droll observations. What remains has a bitter edge. Descriptions of Los Angeles are not wide-ranging and seem tired and uninventive. The story itself is unfocused, so the relevance of many incidents is unclear. And it goes on much too long. The book is maybe twice the length of Chandler’s earlier novels but has less action and fewer plot twists. The needlessly complicated ending is pretty much mandated by the book’s structure and will come as a surprise to few readers. All in all, getting through the book may be something of a slog. Fans of Chandler’s work are likely to be disappointed.