Sunday, July 7, 2019
Signal Watch Reads: "The Long Goodbye" (1953) and "Playback" (1958)
At long last, I read both The Long Goodbye (1953) and Playback (1958), the last of Raymond Chandler's novels centered upon detective Philip Marlowe.
You'll note a lengthy dry spell between books here, and there's a precipitous drop-off between the two in depth and strength. It's curious as The Long Goodbye feels less like a detective novel and more like an author wrestling with himself, working through the point in his life where he'd enjoyed success and some fame and found neither amounted to much as he was still living with himself as an alcoholic, a writer of genre fiction, and now a widower.*
Reading about The Long Goodbye online confirms what I'd suspected - that the book is considered Chandler's finest worst, literary in nature rather than a well-honed detective novel. I'll not dispute this assessment and just throw my unneeded voice in with those who believe the work stands above even his other master works as an oddly personal Marlowe novel - or a novel which happens to be structured as a detective book, but can be read any number or ways.
You may recall SimonUK and I covered the 1970's-era film adaptation of The Long Goodbye on the podcast. In that episode I admitted that I thought I'd read the book already, and in prepping for the podcast learned I had not actually read it. While I was able to enjoy the book as something entirely new and different, the alterations strip the story of elements which could and should have worked well on-screen and excising much of the personal element of the novel, maybe turning it into a commentary on different, more timely topics. It is what it is, and I enjoyed it, but it does leave the novel available for an adaptation hewing closer to the source material.
Marlowe's friend Terry Lennox, a drunk who married an upper-crust dame, asks Marlowe for a ride to Mexico (from LA). Upon returning, he learns Lennox murdered his wife and he's aided in his escape. While Marlowe ponders what happened and deals with the cops, Lennox is found to have committed suicide in Mexico. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance of Lennox's calls on Marlowe to find her husband, who has gone missing - he's a big-time author of a genre of purple-prose fiction Marlowe doesn't care for. He returns Wade, the writer, to his beautiful wife and is asked to stay on, basically babysitting Wade to ensure he finishes his latest book. But a beautiful wife is a temptation, Wade is hurtling toward a bad end, and the Lennox suicide never sits right with Marlowe.
Arguably, both Lennox and Wade show a side of Chandler, both as drunks, one as a man lost in the world of his making, the other lost in his own writing and lack of self-respect. And, of course, Marlowe himself, fighting temptation, trying to help, trying not judge too harshly - trying to be a friend.
It's Marlowe, so there are a wide variety of weirdos, shifty attorneys, wealthy titans, gangsters, shady cops and high-gloss women with a variety of sexual appetites and motivations. A range of backgrounds and stories interleave, and - in that - it's most certainly a Chandler mystery. But what Marlowe himself is searching for and why he's involved with any of these characters remains the real question of the novel.
Playback, released in the US just months before Chandler's passing, feels like Chandler trying to get his groove back and recapture something like what he had in The Little Sister. The pieces just don't fall into place quite as organically, and you get the feeling Chandler followed that notion of handing over an unfinished work, something he could have tinkered with forever in order to make it hit those same high notes - but for a lesser work, it's still remarkably strong. It simply has an ending with is a bit on the nose for a Chandler novel, and seems to take it's sweet time getting to the relevant clues - but that said, it keeps you with the story as it unfolds.
There's less of a series of twists and turns than in earlier works, and certainly less subtext, but the commentary of the modern Southern California of the late 1950's is a fascinating time capsule. And if Chandler felt he needed to get one more out, either just to have one more work completed, or to try to knock off some of the rust that came with his difficult final years, impacting his writing, I wouldn't blame him.
As two of Chandler's final works, it's a curious contrast, but I do highly recommend The Long Goodbye, even (or especially) if you've seen the movie. While I have no issue, obviously, with genre fiction working within the genre - it's always remarkable to see the envelope pushed and the work surpass even the best of execution within the genre - of which Chandler is - of course - considered one of the finest.
*Chandler's own life would make for one of those sweeping, gigantic novels that his character, Wade, cranks out - from his time in England to his marriage to Cissy Pascal (18 years his senior) to his failure in business which led to his writing