‘…Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.’ (pg. 416)
First published in 1953, The Long Good-bye is the sixth novel in Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series. I read most of them when I was a teenager, so they’re rereads now (my review of Farewell, My Lovely is here). I’d always considered The Big Sleep my favourite Chandler – after all, it was my first encounter with Marlowe and the hard-boiled crime novel in general. The Long Good-bye , however, is giving Sleep a serious run for its money, certainly on the evidence of this reread.
As the novel opens, Marlowe stumbles upon and befriends a drunk by the name of Terry Lennox. Lennox has been abandoned by his ex-wife, Sylvia, who dumps him in the parking lot of a club. Over the course of the next few months, Marlowe runs into Lennox again, and the two men share the occasional drink together – gimlets at Victor’s bar. Lennox has remarried Sylvia, but their relationship remains rocky to say the least.
Late one night, Lennox turns up at Marlowe’s home and asks if his friend will drive him to Tijuana where he plans to hop on a plane to Mexico. Marlowe agrees even though he suspects Lennox is fleeing the country because the cops are after him. Marlowe doesn’t want any details – he can tell it’s something serious, that’s enough.
On his return from Tijuana, Marlowe receives a visit from the cops who haul him in for questioning on suspicion of accessory after the fact. Sylvia has been found dead, apparently beaten to death with a bronze statue, and Lennox is the prime suspect. When Lennox’s body is found in Mexico along with a suicide note and confession to Sylvia’s murder, Marlowe is released without charge. But Marlowe doesn’t buy the confession – Lennox didn’t seem the type to murder his wife, certainly not in such a brutal manner. Marlowe continues to harbour suspicions about the case, a situation only exacerbated when he receives a warning from Harlan Potter’s lawyer, Sewell Endicott. Potter, a powerful media mogul and father to Sylvia Lennox, wants Marlowe to keep away from the case. Why stir up any unpleasant publicity now that the murderer has taken his own life?
As the novel progresses, Marlowe gets drawn into a web of corruption and conspiracy, a network that covers the District Attorney’s office, the coroner, various members of the police force and Harlan Potter’s media empire:
‘Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition – hard, tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid. The lid, my friend, is down on the Lennox case…’ (pg.78)
The novel contains a second plot strand, one involving an alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, and his wife, Eileen. Marlowe is approached by Wade’s publisher, Howard Spencer, who asks him if he will keep an eye on Wade until he finishes writing his latest novel. Wade has a habit of getting drunk and disappearing for a few days here and there. Marlowe doesn’t want to take the job but gets involved when Eileen Wade appeals to him personally.
Eileen Wade is a classic Chandler creation, a femme-fatale right up there with the best of them. No one writes a blonde walking into a bar quite like Chandler. Here’s Marlowe as he see Eileen for the first time:
She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailor-made with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were cornflower blue, a rare colour, and the lashes were long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter will ever pull a table out for me. She sat down and slipped the gloves under the strap of her bag and thanked him with a smile so gentle, so exquisitely pure, that he was damn near paralysed by it. She said something to him in a very low voice. He hurried away, bending forward. There was a guy who really had a mission in life. (pgs. 103-104)
I make no apologies for the length of that quote. I love Chandler’s style – it’s all about attitude and mood. Speaking of which, here’s a scene from the Lennox plotline – the cops are waiting for Marlowe as he arrives home from his trip to Tijuana. (I could have quoted it earlier, but it seems to fit better here):
It was two o’clock when I got back and they were waiting for me in a dark sedan with no police tags, no red light, only the double antenna, and not only police cars have those. I was half-way up the steps before they came out of it and yelled at me, the usual couple in the usual suits, with the usual stony leisure of movement, as if the world was waiting hushed and silent for them to tell it what to do.
‘Your name Marlowe? We want to talk to you.’
He let me see the glint of a badge. For all I caught of it he might have been Pest Control. (pgs. 41-42)
At first, the two plot strands seem separate from one another, but as the story develops it becomes clear that they are connected. Good-bye contains a plenty of twists and turns, but the storyline feels very satisfying.
The Long Good-bye, is reported to be Chandler’s most personal book. I can’t comment on that, but it certainly feels like his most ambitious work. This is a first-class hardboiled novel, but there’s more to it than that. Chandler uses The Long Good-bye as a means of raising questions about the society of the time – the rich and powerful are his key targets.
This novel, like the others, is set in Los Angeles. At times it feels like a lament for the loss of decency and justice in the city (if these things ever existed in the first place). Towards the end of the story we can sense that Marlowe is growing more than a little tired of this town.
I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures this feeling. Marlowe mixes himself a stiff drink, stands by the open window and looks out over the city:
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 car tyres. 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.
It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care.
I finished the drink and went to bed. (pg. 322)
The Long Good-bye is published by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20 in my #TBR20.