Book Review – The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Chandler is every bit as good as Hemingway, Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and yet he probably isn’t regarded as being in their league. This is mainly because Chandler was pigeonholed as a crime writer, a low-brow genre in which writers were made to languish. This kind of story is very familiar to me due to my many years studying American science fiction. Both were ‘genres,’ neither were ‘big L’ Literature. And yet The Long Goodbye is a better book than The Great Gatsby. Guess which one they made me read in high school?
The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s crowning achievement. More than a work of crime fiction (although it is that too), it is a lament on the darkness of the human condition that echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In it, P.I. Philip Marlowe meets a strange man by the name of Terry Lennox, and is subsequently drawn into a net of decadence, corruption and murder. Along the way he becomes involved with numerous beautiful ‘broads,’ a drunken, forgetful writer, and a host of other memorable characters. Plot twists abound in all of Chandler’s novels, but the plot twists in The Long Goodbye are…uh, especially twisty. The one at the end came right out of the blue, for this reader at least.
That isn’t what makes Chandler a great writer. What makes him great are a number of qualities that every writer should envy. This one certainly does. Chandler is very good at descriptions. He can sketch out a room in just the right amount of detail. His characters come alive in their dress sense (which he often describes at length), their patterns of speech and their mannerisms. More than this, though, Chandler created an utterly compelling protagonist, Philip Marlowe, with his own brand of aloof toughness and bitter romanticism. He’s a walking paradox – one of the best protagonists in all the novels I have ever read. Chandler writes with economy and with power. His scenes never drag and there’s precious little flab to be found. And he has the gift of speaking through his scenes, but it never seems like the scenes only exist to make a point. He has the gift of the witty punchline and an outrageous way with similies. I could go on, but rest assured that I was frequently left shaking my head as to how good Chandler is.
The Long Goodbye, as its title would suggest, feels elegaic. It was the sixth Philip Marlowe novel, and though Chandler would write a seventh, Playback, this does indeed seem like a long goodbye to the world of bent cops, even more bent gangsters and Marlowe himself. Toward the end, we sense Marlowe’s deepening despair. Beyond tough, beyond hardboiled, he enters a realm of existential fury. This anger is well disguised, but always simmering. What Chandler seems to be telling us is that the society he lived in was utterly debased and corrupted by the very foundations upon which it was built. In this it reminded me of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, another very bitter novel set in California.
Chandler was right. If he was alive today, I have no doubt that he’d be sickened by the moral and economic bankruptcy of his United States. Hell, make that the whole Western world. His books are a tremendous gift to anyone who feels, as I do, that there is something very, very wrong here.