Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908

Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye is his penultimate novel and the penultimate novel about his main character, private investigator Philip Marlowe. Although Chandler’s early short stories feature a variety of detectives (many of them prototypes for Marlowe), Marlowe is the hero and narrator of each of his seven published novels. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is forty-two years old and feeling a bit worn down by his life as a lonely, bachelor private eye. He is a laconic and jaded yet honorable observer of the varied and corrupt Los Angeles of his day. The central mysteries of The Long Goodbye strike closer to home for Marlowe than those of previous novels. It is fitting that The Long Goodbye, one of the most beloved and critically respected detective novels ever written, should have an idiosyncratic beginning, rather than starting conventionally with a client hiring Marlowe or his randomly discovering a body or stumbling into a crime.

In his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944), Chandler seeks to rebut the notion that no mystery novel can have literary merit, arguing that “Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” Indeed, Chandler’s reputation in the mystery establishment has little to do with the reasons for which mystery writers are usually treasured by fans. His plots are often baroque and convoluted; solving the mystery is usually less intrinsic to the story than coming to understand the motivations and lives of the characters interacting with Philip Marlowe.

Chandler is appreciated first as a stylist, a writer with the necessary vitality to transcend the mystery genre. The voice of Marlowe is laconic and sarcastic, often noting details in a kind of humorous whimsy and drawing comparisons through similes that are original and incisive, such as his famous two-page description of blondes in The Long Goodbye. He says, “There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice blue glare,” as well as the “small perky blonde who is a little pay and wants to pay her own way . . . and knows judo from the ground up,” and the “pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type,” who “is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard.”

The regard in which Chandler is held by detective-fiction readers (and later detective-fiction writers, who seem universally to regard him as an influence) is further heightened by the themes and by the characterization in his novels. As is the case with Chandler’s other novels, The Long Goodbye is about many things, including love, disillusionment, loyalty, integrity, and honor. It is also about two murders, but ultimately those murders are less important than the human elements that drive their discovery.

Of all Chandler’s novels, The Long Goodbye is the work most focused on Marlowe’s character. For the first third of the novel, he does not have a client; his friendship with Lennox provides the catalyst that propels the story. Later, he is hired by Eileen Wade only because he had been Lennox’s friend. As he finds himself compelled to investigate Lennox’s supposed death and to help the Wades, he muses to himself, “There is no trap as deadly as the one you set for yourself.” In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler writes that “down these mean streets a man must go his is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” He goes on to say, “He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” The entire novel hinges on Marlowe’s loyalty and his honor and upon his need to preserve those things despite the “mean streets” he travels.

Marlowe’s Los Angeles has its share of good people (such as Linda Loring, police detective Bernie Ohls, and Candy, Wade’s “houseboy”), but it is a corrupt place where the crooked, such as Mendy Menendez, and the wealthy, such as Harlan Potter, have their way. As Ohls tells Marlowe, “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks.” As in previous novels, Marlowe often plays out complicated chess problems on a board by himself, symbolizing in part his need to understand the game he is caught within, the need to be something other than a pawn in the hands of the powerful.

Marlowe represents a foil to the other two men of the novel: Faced with adversity in the war and corruption on the home front, Terry Lennox simply gives up and becomes an empty shell of a man. Wade, on the other hand, self-destructs with a bottle. Marlowe is nothing if not tenacious, and, ultimately, he stays the course, not for Lennox, nor for Wade, nor even for himself, but for the truth. When Terry returns to see Marlowe in the hope that his reappearance will allow him to continue his charade, Marlowe tells him, “You bought a lot of me, Terry. For a smile and a nod and a wave of the hand and a few quiet drinks in a quiet bar here and there. It was nice while it lasted. So long, amigo. I won’t say goodbye. I said it to you when it meant something. I said it when it was sad and lonely and final.”

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Critical Context