The tenth part in a series of eleven book reviews.
From the 1930s to the 1950s Raymond Chandler penned a stylish collection of short stories and novels within the crime fiction genre.
I’m rereading his work and writing reviews. More details about the who, what and why are explained here in part one.
Review Number: 15
Review Date: 28 March 2016
Title: The Long Goodbye
Author: Raymond Chandler
Country: United States
Publication Date: 1953
Genre: Crime Fiction
There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.
From the opening lines, with a drunk “Englishman” clambering out of a Rolls-Royce, we are transported to a world of the rich and vainglorious.
For those with money, Los Angeles has become a paradise lost. In the mid-1950s, they should have been living the American dream. Instead, they are trapped by the past.
The Long Goodbye is Raymond Chandler’s sixth novel. It’s the longest and most ambitious. It’s certainly his best.
His previous stories had often been set in cheap hotels and dives, amidst the deadbeats and downbeat. But this time the focus is on the bold and the beautiful. Opulent mansions, where the wealthy waste away on drink and bitterness; to pristine sanatoriums with sinister doctors keeping their rich patients sedated and pliant. Patients are a virtue, but the doctors aren’t.
Chandler’s private detective, Philip Marlowe, has chanced upon the inebriated Englishman, Terry Lennox. Mixed fortunes beckon. People may have more money, but they don’t have fewer problems.
Lennox possesses beautiful manners and his charm appeals to Marlowe, who helps out and as a result falls into trouble. Lennox’s life becomes entwined with that of Marlowe.
Chandler has conjured up the great American novel. The themes are love, betrayal and murder. The Long Goodbye is not just a detective solving a case. It’s also about friendship, wartime heroics and how hard it can be to end relationships.
There is more confidence and time for conjecture in the writing. There is also a melancholy feel. I can’t recall any character expressing contentment or satisfaction with their lives. In a sense, that’s the curse and/or paradox of materialism and greater choices. In reality, Chandler’s wife (Cissy) was terminally ill as he penned the work. That explains the many pauses in action as Marlowe reflects on L.A. and life:
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.
There was one film adaptation.
The Long Goodbye (1973) is by the renowned Robert Altman. He also directed such classics as Thieves Like Us (1974), The Player (1992) and Gosford Park (2001).
It gets mixed reviews, and I’m not a huge fan of Altman’s take. It’s a deconstruction of the whole genre. So tries too hard to be too clever and too coy. It’s set in the 1970s and messes around with the plot and attitudes. The novel’s themes were strong enough to avoid games like that.
Marlowe is played by Elliott Gould, who is the same in every damn film he does. From Capricorn One (1978) to Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) – the number in the movie doesn’t matter – he’s always ultra-smart and too sure of himself. Some acting and variety would be good now and then.
Anyway, back to the book.
In a perfect world this would have been Chandler’s last novel. It’s a work of epic grandeur that takes crime fiction to the highest level.
The Long Goodbye had the perfect name and motifs to finish it all in 1953. But like the characters’ actions in the story, being perfect is pretty much impossible.
“Mostly I just kill time,” he said, “and it dies hard.”