Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 15+

This 1953 novel is the sixth of Chandler's seven completed novels about Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, who was introduced in 1939 in The Big Sleep. Now in his 40s and starting to show a little gray, Marlowe knows he can't go on forever, but otherwise hasn't changed much, and even when he thinks about how his life might have been different, he wouldn't want to change. The world around him has moved ahead into the Cold War era. Technology, politics, and the law enforcement culture of L.A. have marched forward somewhat. But there are still shady millionaires, crooked cops, too-powerful gangsters and their hired heavies, and men and women who do murder for the reasons people have always done murder. It's still a dark, ugly world where a lone operator with a strong sense of honor and duty, of right and wrong, is sometimes the only man you can count on.

One year when Marlowe happens to have a whole house to himself, he strikes up a casual friendship with a well-heeled alcoholic named Terry Lennox - a 30-ish war veteran with prematurely white hair and distinctive scars on one side of his face, who has twice married the randy, red-haired daughter of a newspaper magnate. Lennox, who has had all the character beaten out of him by life's disappointments, no longer seems to care about his wife's amorous adventures. Then, one day, it seems he does. He shows up at Marlowe's house asking for a ride to the Tijuana airport, intending to fly away to destination unknown. Whatever Marlowe suspects, he only learns afterward Lennox's wife has been found in her love nest with her face battered in by a brass monkey. Marlowe spends a few days in jail, on suspicion of being an accessory after the fact, but then Lennox turns up in a small-town Mexican hotel with a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head and a signed confession to his wife's murder, and that's that. The magnate daddy wants it all hushed up, the police close the case, Marlowe gets his walking papers, end of story. Right? Well, no. That's just the beginning.

There follows an at first seemingly unconnected case involving a popular romance novelist named Roger Wade, who is having trouble staying sober long enough to finish his 13th bestseller. First the man's publisher, then his dreamboat wife, and finally Wade himself appeal to Marlowe - now famous for being true to a friend in a tight spot - to help the writer get over his block. Clearly, something is eating him, but when sober he doesn't seem to remember what it was. Dragged once too often into their business, Marlowe finally falls into the familiar role of discovering the corpse that sets off another cascade of intrigues and betrayals. Meanwhile, Marlowe increasingly suspects that more than coincidence lies behind his involvement in both cases. By the end, two men are found to have committed suicide after confessing to the same murder - and isn't it just typical that neither of them really killed the redhead, or himself!

In the ultimate case of "If I had only asked so-and-so about such-and-such at the very beginning, I could have saved multiple lives," Marlowe will have to live with the burden of what he learns in this case - but only as long as some very powerful people, who have warned him to keep his nose out of their business, let him. And that's where I'll leave it. The synopsis is complex enough; the actual story has many layers more. It also features such amazing Easter eggs as a passage of tortured stream-of-consciousness writing by Wade, a 100-times-over millionaire's diagnosis of everything wrong in the world that reads like a Donald Trump campaign speech, and the unprecedented spectacle of Marlowe hiring another detective to get information he needs to solve his case. There's a lot packed into this book.

In this sixth Marlowe installment, Chandler writes with the same deep psychological insight into what makes people do what they do, the same eye for scenic detail and ear for dialogue, the same nose for the secret layers within characters and relationships as ever, and just a little more freedom to discuss sex and quote profane language than in the past. He writes his usual tale packed with action and intrigue, yet paced to allow plenty of room for atmospherics, for philosophical musings, for characters to launch into diatribes about their pet problems with society, and for the slow smolder of Marlowe's tightly controlled despair. His previously non-stop flow of wisecracks and lyrically quirky similes is not seen so much, but he remains a straight shooter who gets under everyone's skin, male or female, cop or crook, just by sticking to his principles. Some of his scenes bristle with dialogue honed to razor sharpness. Some of them hang heavy with meaningful silence.

Overall, however, the pacing seems a little less tight than in the previous books, and the dramatic structure is sometimes a little obscure; and there were several times when I thought the end of the chapter was going to be the end of the book (albeit a somewhat anticlimactic ending), only to realize there were several more chapters to come. False resolutions are followed by further revelations that prove even more devastating than previously guessed, along with the unexpected payoff of plot lines left hanging many pages earlier. Multiple wrongdoers come to some sort of comeuppance or other; lines of friendship and enmity, blame and innocence blur and sharpen again in different places; and the last mind-blowing revelation leaves you marveling at the chain of cause and effect that ties it all together. In style and content, Chandler delivers an undeniably great American novel, lightly disguised as a detective thriller. It isn't his most powerful example of either, but it's right up there with an admittedly hard-to-beat handful of magnificent books.

For your information, this book was made into a film in 1973, starring Elliott Gould and directed by Robert Altman. Judging by the synopsis I just read, it isn't particularly faithful to the book. Just so you know.

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