My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner."
When I had first read Raymond Chandler's The Long Good-Bye (1953), an acclaimed classic of the noir, hardboiled PI genre, I decided it was a masterpiece. I was quite curious about my reaction to the novel 45 years later. Well, I would not call it a masterpiece - in the noir genre I prefer Ross Macdonald's novels, all of which I reviewed here on Goodreads - but it certainly is a remarkable and memorable book, almost but not quite deserving the five-star rating.
The novel is too well known to need presentation of the set-up: the readers may even find an absurdly detailed summary of the plot on Wikipedia. What makes the novel great is the portrayal of friendship between Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox: it far transcends the usual limited literary range of mystery/crime novels. This aspect makes the novel read like real, high-caliber literature. The friendship is so unexplained, capricious, strange that it feels utterly real. Can one ever forget the gimlets (half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice)? Some literary critics prefer Chandler's Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely, yet even though I read them about the same time as Good-Bye I don't have any recollection of these novels. On the other hand I have never forgotten the opening scenes of The Long Good-Bye, Terry Lennox, and the gimlets. Well, the author himself considers this book his best work.
There is some great prose in the novel. Obviously, the famous passage that begins with "There are blondes and blondes [...]" stands out as some of the most wonderful writing in the genre. Bravura and pure class! There are a few immortal chandlerisms headlined by the "Bells rang" phrase that I use in the epigraph. The reader is also bound to like
"He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel."But certain aspects spoil the novel a little for me. First and foremost, Philip Marlowe is so cool and so macho that Chuck Norris would instantaneously pee his pants and mewl in submission to him. Mr. Marlowe, an island of honesty, honor, and character in the ocean of corruption, is a hard-to-take cliché. The gangsters, the beatings, the intimidations have quite a cliché feel as well.
I believe there is a lot of Mr. Chandler in the persona of one of the novel's protagonists, Roger Wade, a popular author suffering from a writing block. Mr. Wade's character rings true, perhaps more than any other character in the novel, other than Terry Lennox. And how could I (a crusader against books longer than about 200 pages) not love the passage:
"My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there's a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold."The reader will also find several neat social observations like
"Sheriff Petersen [...] a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office for ever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a close mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable."One can also feel the atmosphere of the times, the Communist scare of the early 1950s and the anti-Red hysteria; Lieutenant Ohls' rant against the rigged social system is memorable.
The novel feels a little dated, in fact more dated than some of Ross Macdonald's works from the similar period. Men wear monocles, etc., but mostly it's the language which dates the text. A "shamus" may wield "a gat" to make a bad guy "scram." The proponents of the PC mind control through restrictions on language will likely be unhappy with the 1950s phrases like "she's a dish," "he's a Mex," with calling women "girls," and with the "sexism" oozing from the magnificent "blondes passage". I hope they will swallow their unhappiness and will not try to follow Stalin or other tyrants by censoring the text, the true snapshot of its times.
Truly great novel! If only Philip Marlowe did one nasty thing, if only he showed one human weakness, I would have rounded the rating up. (By the way, as a Central European by birth and a resident of San Diego, I am enclosing two neat quotes after the rating.)
Four and a half stars.
"Only the nicest people. Absolutely no Central Europeans. Just the cream, the top-drawer crowd, the lovely, lovely people."
"San Diego? One of the most beautiful harbours in the world and nothing in it but navy and a few fishing boats."
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