Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom. Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumour, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack. We’re a big, rough, rich, wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization.
The Long Goodbye was Raymond Chandler’s sixth novel to feature his world-weary private eye Philip Marlowe, and is rated number 15 in the CWA’s top 100 novels.
The book begins with Marlowe befriending a drunk named Terry Lennox, who married into money and then left it to drift down to the gutter. Lennox is the politest drunk Marlowe ever met, which attracts the PI’s interest, and they become occasional drinking buddies. Lennox eventually gets back together with his wife, which Marlowe reads about in the gossip columns:
‘Your correspondent is all fluttery at the news that Terry and Sylvia Lennox have rehitched at Las Vegas, the dears. She’s the younger daughter of multimillionaire Harlan Potter of San Francisco and Pebble Beach, of course. Sylvia is having Marcel and Jeanne Duhaux redecorate the entire mansion in Encino from basement to roof in the most devastatingly dernier cri. Curt Westerheym, Sylvia’s last but one, my dears, gave her the little eighteen-room shack for a wedding present, you may remember.
Terry then apparently beats Sylvia to death in a jealous rage after finding she has been unfaithful. The police tell Marlowe:
‘Guy catches his wife cheating and beats her head to raw flesh and bone and blood-soaked hair. Our old friend the bronze statuette. Not original but it works.’
Marlowe (who is *almost* sure Lennox is innocent) helps him to escape to Mexico, and suffers some rough treatment by the cops as a result. Cops rarely come out of a Chandler novel looking good, and The Long Goodbye contains some real beauties, including a traditionally minded policeman who works Marlowe over in his office.
‘I used to be tough but I’m getting old. You take a good punch, mister, and that’s all you get from me. We got boys over at the City Jail that ought to be working in the stock-yards. Maybe we hadn’t ought to have them because they ain’t nice, clean powder-puff punchers like Dayton here. They don’t have four kids and a rose garden like Green. They live for different amusements. It takes all kinds and labour’s scarce. You got any more funny little ideas about what you might say, if you bothered to say it?’
‘Not with the cuffs on, Captain.’
It hurt even to say that much.
But it all blows over when the authorities learn a Mexican policeman has shot Lennox dead a few days later. Case closed, to all intents and purposes, but Marlowe is nothing if not stubborn…
I owned a piece of him. I had invested time and money in him, and three days in the ice-house, not to mention a slug on the jaw and a punch in the neck that I felt every time I swallowed. Now he was dead and I couldn’t even give him back his five hundred bucks. That made me sore. It is always the little things that make you sore.
And he keeps getting warned off the case, which makes him suspicious.
‘Perfect. I get it from the law, I get it from the hoodlum element, I get it from the carriage trade. The words change, but the meaning is the same. Lay off.
Meanwhile, he has to pay the rent. He picks up a strange job from a New York publisher – locating a missing dipsomaniac writer and keeping him on the straight and narrow so that he can deliver his next bestseller.
Marlowe finds Roger Wade, drags him back to his luxurious Idle Valley home, inevitably falls for his beautiful and seemingly doting wife, and then completely fails to disentangle himself from their increasingly chaotic lives.
The Long Goodbye is probably Chandler’s best book. He has toned himself down a bit, and is the better for it. In my review of The Big Sleep, for example, I complained that the cynical P.I. one-liners come overly thick and fast. Here they still crop up, and are just as good, but they don’t dominate in the same way.
Maybe I was tired and irritable. Maybe I felt a little guilty. I could learn to hate this guy without even knowing him. I could just look at him across the width of a cafeteria and want to kick his teeth in.
The rich come in for as much of a pasting as the police.
At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.
And I like this one too:
As elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.
The story is the main thing, though, and it’s very good. Seemingly episodic, it reveals the plot piece by piece until it becomes apparent that everything is connected. But no happy endings, although Marlowe gets what he always seems to want: a chance to see all his cynicism justified, lose some friends, and turn down another shot at peace and happiness in favour of taking the high road. I’d hate to have to deal with Marlowe, he’s such hard work…
The Big Sleep
First published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, 1953
This edition Penguin 2005
320 pages in print
Final destination: A keeper