Summer is coming to my cluttered little suburban townhouse. I can feel the warmth seeping slowly into my skin, waking me from the complacent stupor of winter.
For the past six years, I’ve worked long hours in an air-conditioned building. My summers have been swallowed by deadlines. In the evening, I emerge from the office into the still-balmy evening, flinching at the sudden change in temperature. I take the train home, where I fall asleep on the couch in front of the fan, my body curled around my laptop like a lover, my fingers still on the keys.
This time of year, I live for the weekend, when I can venture out into the sunlight and shake away the exhaustion of the week. But every weekend is tinged with dread – because almost before I know what’s happening, it’s Monday morning again, and though the sun is shining, deadlines are beckoning and I run into their arms.
I’m telling you all this for two reasons. Firstly, because I wanted to let you know why this review wasn’t online two weeks (!!!) ago. And secondly, because it’s got something to do with the novel I’m reviewing this week: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.
For me, sunny weekends bear a melancholy grace. They’re beautiful, but they don’t last. It’s the same kind of feeling that fluttered around me as I read the final pages of The Long Goodbye the other weekend, while sitting in my sunny yard. With every page I turned, I was moving one page closer to the end.
By the time I’d finished reading, my shoulders were red with sunburn and my thoughts were a mess. Now my shoulders are brown, and my mind is clear.
The Long Goodbye
by Raymond Chandler
Published in 1953
“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.
To say good-bye is to die a little” (p. 309)
When private investigator, Phillip Marlowe meets Terry Lennox for the first time, Terry is falling, drunk, from behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce. At first glance, Terry looks young and attractive, but the line of scars down the side of his face from a botched plastic surgery job tell Marlowe there’s more to Terry than he first thought.
The next time Marlowe sees Terry, the stranger is standing on Marlowe’s doorstep with a gun in one hand and a suitcase in the other. Marlowe helps Lennox across the border to Mexico. It’s only later that Marlowe learns why Lennox was running. Lennox’s wife has been brutally murdered, and Lennox is the prime suspect.
While he’s being interrogated by the police over his role in Lennox’s escape, Marlowe is suddenly set free. The case is closed; Lennox has killed himself in Mexico, leaving behind a written confession.
To Marlowe, something doesn’t seem quite right. Did Lennox have it in him to kill his wife? And why would an innocent man kill himself? Filled with doubt, Marlowe sets out to find out what really happened to Terry Lennox.
Let’s make this clear from the beginning: I’d never have read Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye if a friend hadn’t sent me his copy of the novel in the mail. As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, I’m easily confused by complicated plots. And, as far as I was concerned, I’d already ticked “hardboiled detective novel” off my genre checklist months ago. But I owed it to my friend to read this novel, so I shrugged off my misgivings and began to read.
Before too long, The Long Goodbye had me so intrigued, I’d absentmindedly started dog-earing the pages of my borrowed copy.
I was, of course, expecting a detective story. But The Long Goodbye is more than that. It dragged me into its sad little world, and I’ve been looking at my life through the frame of this novel ever since.
The Long Goodbye is one of those profoundly atmospheric novels I love so much. It’s soft and sad. And hot – Long Goodbye is set on the outskirts of Los Angeles at the crescendo of a long summer. The novel shimmers with heat. Chandler’s descriptions of the LA smog are uncomfortable; even claustrophobic at times.
Chandler writes in a voice so distinctive that it’s come to stand in for all detective novels of the era. Long Goodbye oozes with metaphors. An unattractive woman has a “mouth like a fire bucket” when she laughs. Time “crawls by like a sick cockroach”. Marlowe tells us he fits in “like a pearl onion in a banana split”. At first, Chandler’s metaphors feel terribly contrived. Even cheesy. But after a while, the strange rhythm of Long Goodbye becomes an odd refrain that caught my heart by the strings. “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars” Marlowe says towards the novel’s conclusion. Beautiful.
Chandler presents us Marlowe as an imperfect, bruised hero, and tells us next to nothing about him, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. It’s a dangerous game, but Chandler has the skill to make it work. In the hands of a lesser writer, Marlowe would have come across as heartless, blank, uninteresting. Cold. But Chandler gives his narrator a tantalising warmth, feeding us just enough information to keep us intrigued. Marlowe has a few surprises in store. He quotes literature, he plays chess alone. He confesses his secrets, and shows us his soul, little by little.
For me, The Long Goodbye is more than a detective novel. It’s a work of social commentary; a novel about justice, loyalty and human warmth – scarce though it is. Marlowe is the only character in the novel who’s really interested in finding the truth about what happened to his friend. The police, the official representatives of the law, are presented as mindless thugs.
In Chandler’s corrupt, cynical world, the law is a malleable thing. Everyone acts with their own interests in mind: money, silence, sex. While Marlowe is not entirely immune, he’s perhaps the only character in the novel that shows any hint of a conscience. It’s as unnerving as the phantom scars on the side of Terry Lennox’s face.
The Long Goodbye is an staggeringly grim novel, written from a dark, dark place. One of the novel’s peripheral characters, Roger Wade, is an alcoholic writer, famous for his popular, bestselling books. Marlowe is paid by Roger’s wife and publishers to keep the writer sober for long enough to finish his next novel.
Roger is a pathetic case, a writer who hates his own writing, but, unlike Terry, Marlowe shows him no pity, and takes an instant, brutal dislike to him. It only takes a quick glance at Raymond Chandler’s biography to realise that Roger Wade bears more than a passing resemblance to Raymond Chandler himself. This adds yet another layer of melancholy to this already bleak novel. It takes a special kind of self-loathing for an author to write himself into a novel, only to berate himself – repeatedly.
Like a nagging feeling you can’t quite shake, The Long Goodbye will burrow itself into your mind. It’s gritty, yet graceful. It’s not a novel I’d have chosen to read, but I’m so glad Chandler and I crossed paths when we did.
To pay homage to Chandler’s last lines, I’m yet to find a way to say goodbye this sad, sweet book. It lingers, it won’t let go.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Even if you’ve never read a detective novel before, read The Long Goodbye. This is the detective novel, made art.
In a word: