Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
As in all of Chandler’s novels, the overriding theme of The Long Goodbye is the corruption of society, and the lengths to which people, especially the rich, will go to preserve the appearance of virtue. Harlan Potter, who appears only briefly, is the key figure in this regard. An imposingly wealthy man, he will use his intermediaries to go to any lengths to maintain his privacy and to keep the taint of negative publicity from touching him or his family. People may be killed, lives destroyed, public officials corrupted, as long as Potter’s privacy is maintained. The homes of the rich—isolated, carefully guarded, too large for human comfort—are an important symbol of this aspect of the novel.
At the same time, this novel is explicit in stating that corruption and crime are an inevitable product of the American ethos. In an extended dialogue, Bernie Ohls tells Marlowe that he hates gambling of any kind because it is one of the ways in which money and power go to organized crime and therefore contributes to corruption. Marlowe responds that “Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom.” He goes on to say that police fail to understand their society: “We’re a big rough rich wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We’ll have it with us a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.” Marlowe seems to see his role as the preservation of more humane values; his dogged pursuit of the truth is valuable for its own sake, but he is not under any illusion that it will change society.