The Long Goodbye was one of the signature entries in Raymond Chandler’s classic Philip Marlow series.
Marlowe befriends the oddball Terry Lennox, a scarred war vet with a drinking problem and a rich, promiscuous wife. An unusual favor for Lennox lands Marlowe in hot water when Lennox’s wife turns up murdered. A quick, convenient resolution to the case leaves Marlowe uneasy. He gets drawn into the domestic implosion of a self-destructive, alcoholic writer and his beautiful, inscrutable wife, whose lives intersect with the Lennox case in ways Marlowe couldn’t foresee. Pursuing truths few are interested in coming to light exposes the detective to hazardous consequences.
All the qualities that made Chandler a master of 20th century detective noir are on display in The Long Goodbye. The author crafted a careful blend of mood, character, atmosphere and plot that coalesced into a subtly insistent, compelling narrative that lingers in the brain after reading.
Chandler was a few books into the Marlowe series by the time The Long Goodbye appeared and he had a strong grasp on his lead. Marlowe’s near stoicism is legendary and Chandler deployed it to strong effect in this outing, exploring the detective’s complex personal code, while using his drive for justice in an ethically murky world a key driver of the plot. He surrounded Marlowe with a colorful coterie of supporting personalities, a gamut from jaded-but-decent cops to thuggish gangsters and everyone in between, including a power broker insistent on remaining behind the scenes, politically-minded prosecutors more interested in their futures than the truth, and a publisher whose basic decency wars with his commercial prospects. Lennox was an intriguing concoction, an enigma that loomed large over the action, a tragic but sympathetic man whose scars drove him toward an almost nihilistic lack of regard for his own survival. Chandler came up with one of his patented femmes fatale in Eileen Wade, whose calm exterior belied her inner turmoil. Her man-child husband was oddly likeable in spite of his mercurial mood swings and obvious weaknesses.
Chandler dropped these conflicting personalities into a carefully drawn world, deploying keenly observed details to build mood and atmosphere. His spare, elegant language draws the reader into the sultry L.A. summer that envelops the action in a dread-filled haze. Chandler had no need to rush the plot, allowing events to unfold at a deliberate pace that slowly ratchets up the tension and aura of impending tragedy. He felt no need to be melodramatic or use showy violence for its own sake; when the action beats occur, they make perfect sense and serve the overall atmosphere Chandler crafted so precisely.
Dialogue is key to a Chandler novel and The Long Goodbye is filled with gems. The sardonic Marlowe is always a font of spot-on observations about the insanity surrounding him. Chandler was a master at using language to define the other characters, crafting precise voices where tone communicated as much as the words used. The “hard boiled” lexicon can feel clichéd to the modern reader, but Chandler’s version was the original deal, smart and caustic in equal doses as it blazed a distinct path in crime fiction vernacular.
The book’s time period is on full display, with some attitudes that might rankle modern readers, though The Long Goodbye is a far milder example than some of its mid-century contemporaries. There’s nothing here that should deter anyone interested in taking in a peak example of a master storyteller in his prime.