The funniest thing I read today was Mitch Berg’s dramatic memoir about one unforgettable day in Bosnia. He “misspeaks” over at Shot In the Dark.
We’ve been talking about classic hard-boiled detectives in the Comments section lately, so I might as well review Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which I re-read last week. So I still have some vague memory of it, in spite of my advancing age. (I also read The High Window, but I have more to say bout this one.)
It’s my understanding that The Long Goodbye is generally considered the last “good” Philip Marlowe novel. It was written in 1953. Chandler finished another one, Playback, a little later, but it’s not much liked. When he died in 1959, he was working on Poodle Springs, which was finished by Robert B. Parker and published just a few years ago. I’ve never read Parker’s extension. I used to be a big fan of Parker’s Spenser mysteries, until Spenser became utterly wussified, the perfect Brother Tom. I figure any Chandler story finished by Parker would have to include a scene where Marlowe gets all weepy and apologizes to Linda Loring for his male insensitivity.
Anyway, The Long Goodbye centers on Marlowe’s on-and-off friendship with a burned out case named Terry Lennox, a scarred veteran of World War II. When Marlowe first meets him he’s the drunken, kept husband of a rich woman named Sylvia. When he next meets him the marriage has broken up, but later they get together again. Occasionally Marlowe and Terry meet for drinks. One day Terry asks him to drive him to Mexico, no questions asked. Marlowe does this, and finds himself in trouble when he returns home. Sylvia Lennox has been murdered, and Marlowe is charged with aiding and abetting. He endures the third degree at the hands of a bad cop, and spends a few days in jail before being suddenly released. Terry Lennox, he is told, has committed suicide in Mexico. The case is closed.
Marlowe is unsatisfied by the whole business, but there’s little to be done about it. His connection with Lennox, however, gets him an offer of work from the wife of one of Lennox’s neighbors, a successful author of historical romances named Roger Wade. At the wife’s request, Marlowe locates Wade, an alcoholic, who has put himself into the care of a shady doctor. Marlowe gets the man home. He’s offered a job as a sort of muscle-nanny, but turns it down. Nevertheless, he and Roger become friends after a fashion.
Wade is an interesting character, in part because he’s clearly autobiographical. Like Wade, Chandler himself was a successful genre writer with a drinking problem, on his way down personally and professionally, unable to get a handle on his life. Although Wade is a generally sympathetic character, Chandler doesn’t cut him any slack. The man’s self-pity, self-destructiveness and occasional cruelty to those who care about him are painted in uncompromising colors.
Eventually there is more murder (of course) and secrets connected to Terry Lennox come to light.
Chandler isn’t the kind of writer who simply sets up a problem and then leads you through to the solution. (A famous example is The Big Sleep, where the chauffeur is murdered, and Chandler himself was unable to say who killed him.) His mysteries are about human passions and moral dilemmas, competing loyalties and the tension between law and morality. Marlowe picks his way through the bodies, trying to keep his integrity as clean as possible under the circumstances, often paying a high price for doing what he considers right. The endings of the books are never entirely satisfying from a puzzle-solving perspective, or from the perspective of abstract justice. Chandler’s message seems to be that pure justice is unattainable in this world, but that a decent man like Marlowe can make some small difference, and try to come out of it all with his soul as unpolluted as possible.
The Philip Marlowe books aren’t as much fun as many mysteries, but they’re right at the top of the genre in terms of craftsmanship and character depiction. If you’re interested in hard-boiled mysteries, you need to read Chandler.
Tags: Raymond Chandler, hard boiled detective, The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe, classic