“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little.”
In 2009 James Ellroy was quoted in The Paris Review thus: ‘Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.’ I used to agree until I read The Long Goodbye, which blows this interpretation out of the water. Philip Marlowe may very well have been the man Chandler wanted to be, but his penultimate novel features two other characters that the author feared he really was. Both make The Long Goodbye the most autobiographical of Chandler’s books.
Inner turmoil had always dogged Chandler – it was one of the reasons he first took up writing, having been fired for drunkenness from his job as an oil company executive – and it is very much in evidence in The Long Goodbye. Chandler wrote it at a pivotal time in his life. His wife Cissy was seriously ill, and she died the year after the book was published. Chandler nursed her himself during their own long goodbye, and her death drove Chandler ever deeper into alcoholism, and a depression severe enough for him to make several attempts at suicide. After her death Chandler would never again be as prolific a writer; in the remaining five years of his life he completed only one more novel, compared to the six published in the previous 15 years.
The Long Goodbye features two men who could be seen as thinly veiled portraits of the author. Marlowe meets the first of these, Terry Lennox, at the start of the book, and a complex and loyal friendship grows between them. When Lennox asks for help, Marlowe does so without thinking; it is only when Lennox’s wife is found murdered that Marlowe questions his idea of the man he thought he knew. Like Chandler, Lennox was educated in England; and like him, he volunteered for the Canadian army and served during wartime (the First World War in Chandler’s case, the Second for Lennox). Both men were scarred by their experience of combat, in Lennox’s case physically as well as mentally; and perhaps this goes some way towards explaining their fragile characters and increasing reliance on alcohol.
More successful for me (and arguably more honest) is Chandler’s second self-portrait. About a third of the way through the novel, Marlowe is asked to babysit alcoholic writer Roger Wade, and keep him on the wagon long enough to finish his latest book. Wade seems very much like the Chandler who wrote The Long Goodbye: older (Chandler was 65 in 1953), wealthy and successful. But Wade – who writes historical fiction rather than detective novels – is also haunted by the lack of respect accorded to his genre, and is desperate to be taken seriously as a novelist. Chandler was similarly perturbed, using essays such as ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ to argue for the artistic value of crime fiction. It is also perhaps what drove him to write something with much greater emotional depth such as The Long Goodbye.
The Long Goodbye is a much longer book than any of Chandler’s others, and this larger canvas also gives him the space to explore more of the society through which Marlowe moves. When Roger Wade goes missing, Marlowe’s search takes in a variety of hospitals and private clinics, looking for somewhere where Wade may be drying out. I found these encounters particularly well-drawn and unnerving, perhaps because they seemed to have been drawn from life; and their quack doctors and dubious cures made me wonder about Chandler’s own experience of such places.
Chandler remains as ridiculously quotable in The Long Goodbye as in any of his other books, perhaps even more so. I could have filled this review with extracts (most of them about alcohol, to be fair – my fault for going teetotal this month) when what you should be doing is reading the book itself. I’ll just leave you with this – one of my favourites from the book because it captures so much about the urban environment that Chandler was so adept at describing, and does it in such a simple (‘big, angry city‘) and poetic (‘never for very long completely silent‘) way:
‘When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.’
Sleep well, Ray.