by Peter Maiden
“He had been a man it was impossible to dislike. How many do you meet in a lifetime you can say that about?” This reflection in the mind of world-famous sleuth Philip Marlowe, in Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye, sums up the sentiment and the dilemma Marlowe wrestles with in the novel.
In personal desperation because of his wife’s fatal illness, in 1953 Chandler took Marlowe out of the box of the hard-boiled detective novel, where he had reigned since 1939, and pushed him, by the device of delving into his feelings, into the realm of literature.
According to Chandler’s biographer Frank McShane, Chandler stated at the time: “I don’t mind Marlowe being a sentimentalist, because he always has been. His toughness has always been more or less a surface bluff.” Chandler’s literary agent strongly disagreed, arguing that the hero would actually loathe himself for revealing the feelings he describes in The Long Goodbye. Chandler fired the agent, and wound up publishing the book in England, where it sold well, before publishing in the United States, where it became a classic.
Viewers of the 1971 Robert Altman film version of The Long Goodbye who have not actually read the novel have done themselves a disservice. Rather than portraying a sensitive man who tries to guard his emotions with toughness and machismo, in Altman’s film Eliot Gould played Marlowe as simply numb. Director Altman primarily projected his personal cultural vision into the film, which was only tangentially related to the book. This was epitomized by Sterling Hayden performing improvised lines in an important supporting role while drunk and stoned.
Substance abuse is treated as reality in the book. It was, in fact, a problem for Chandler in his personal life. In the following passage, Marlowe and his new friend, named Terry Lennox, discuss the problem at Marlowe’s house. Lennox says:
“Maybe I can quit drinking one of these days. They all say that, don’t they?”
“It takes about three years.”
“Three years?” He looked shocked.
“Usually it does. It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colors, a quieter lot of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.”
This was in the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, and maybe today sobriety can be achieved faster, but the advice is spot on, and deserved, because Marlowe first met Lennox when he was falling down drunk.
Lennox soon finds himself in a worse jam: his unfaithful wife is murdered, and he is the main suspect. Marlowe, full of feeling for Lennox, does what he can for him, which is to try to get him out of harm’s way. He drives Lennox to Tijuana, where Lennox boards a plane. Marlowe then comes back to Los Angeles, and finds the police at his doorstep.
Marlowe has an ambivalent relationship with the cops. On this occasion, he is brought to the station and beaten by a sadistic captain while the captain’s cohort stands by. When the beating is over, and the captain has uncuffed him, he asks Marlowe if he has anything to say for himself. Marlowe does, and he says this:
“No man likes to betray a friend but I wouldn’t betray an enemy into your hands. You’re not only a gorilla, you’re an incompetent. You don’t know how to operate a simple investigation. I was balanced on a knife edge and you could have swung me either way. But you had to abuse me, throw coffee in my face, and use your fists on me when I was in a spot where all I could do was take it. From now on I wouldn’t tell you the time by the clock on your own wall.”
For some strange reason he sat there perfectly still and let me say it. Then he grinned, “You’re just a little old cop-hater, friend. That’s all you are, shamus, just a little old cop-hater.”
“There are places where cops are not hated, Captain. But in those places you wouldn’t be a cop.”
Marlowe refuses to give Lennox up, but soon discovers that Lennox was found dead by his own hand in a small Mexican town. He receives a letter from Lennox apparently mailed moments before the (alleged) self-inflicted gunshot. Marlowe believes that he has failed Lennox, and it dogs him the rest of the book. It’s a two edged sword — he blames both himself and Lennox.
Shortly after Lennox’s presumed death, Marlowe gets entangled in the case of an alcoholic writer with a mysterious, beautiful wife to whom he is drawn. The couple knew Lennox’s late, murdered spouse, and hint at an answer to the question of what happened when she died. Her father is extremely wealthy, and he warns the “at-the-poverty-line” Marlowe not to disturb his well-guarded privacy.
The wealth of Lennox’ father-in-law leads a policeman, who is on good terms with Marlowe, Lieutenant Ohls, to espouse some social commentary:
“There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks,” Ohls said. “Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut from under them and had to sell out for nickels, decent people lost their jobs, stocks got rigged on the market, proxies got bought up like a pennyweight of old gold, and the five per centers and the big law firms got paid hundred-grand fees for beating some law the people wanted but the rich guys didn’t, on account of it cut into their profits. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system. Maybe it’s the best we can get, but it still ain’t any Ivory Soap deal.”
“You sound like a Red,” I said, just to needle him.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said contemptuously. “I ain’t been investigated yet.”
Some critics argued that Marlowe and Lennox portrayed carefully-veiled homosexuals in The Long Goodbye. Chandler himself scoffed at the idea. I’m familiar with gay heroes; I’ve read and enjoyed the David Brandstetter series by the late Joseph Hansen, whose protagonist is a hard-boiled gay insurance investigator. But the “subtext” of a gay relationship in The Long Goodbye, if one exists, is completely overshadowed by the heterosexual attractions Marlowe clearly enjoys throughout the book, including one that will result in marriage in the subsequent volume, Playback. What is more likely at play before Lennox’s death is that Marlowe is taking a risk and extending himself to connect, to make a friend. In the earlier novels there is no chance of friendship; in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe has to expend a lot of effort and emotion to reach out and break with his solitude.
Lest one think, however, that the novel is devoid of the hard-boiled language that Chandler is known for and his readers loved and expected, it is very much present. The independence, the existentialism, the nihilism, the anti-social bent, in short, the special ingredients that made such prose popular, are found in various places throughout the novel, such as here:
“So passed a day in the life of a P.I. Not exactly a typical day but not totally untypical either. What makes a man stay with it nobody knows. You don’t get rich, you don’t often have much fun. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot at or tossed into the jailhouse. Once in a long while you get dead. Every other month you decided to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you can still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money.”
A review of The Long Goodbye by the late Anthony Boucher, himself a mystery writer and editor from Oakland, California, appeared in the New York Times shortly after the book’s release and still speaks volumes: “It’s a moody, brooding book, in which Marlowe is less a detective than a disturbed man of 42 on a quest for some evidence of truth and humanity.”
Incidentally, the best piece of music ever related to a Chandler book, to my jazz-attuned ear, is Charlie Haden’s The Long Goodbye, from the 1992 album Haunted Heart, which takes as a jumping off point the solo sax of a typical noir theme, and turns it into a long meditation in a minor key. It is a lonely, heart-rending, and nicely updated theme that would suit a fine film based on the movie, were one to be made.
Marlowe would have been loathe to admit it, even in this novel, but as a hero he had a special kind of power, the power that comes from real humanity, not the trappings of power that are derived from official positions or big bank accounts. Guided by a keen inner moral sense, his true accomplishment was finding and defining justice in his own unique way.
Through risky and painful detective work, Marlowe ultimately sets right the mystery of what happened to Terry Lennox. And in the end, he just doesn’t like what he finds out about the choices that were made, and how he can’t square his closely held ideals with the reality of the big open world.
But then, after a while, the door buzzer will ring again . . .
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