The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (Best Novel; 1955)
By Adam WagnerJanuary 11, 2019
We're revisiting every Edgar Award winner for Best Novel. Not every winner is well known, but that can't be said about 1955's winner, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler.
Raymond Chandler. The name carries so much weight in the mystery genre, it’s hard to believe anyone who says they’ve never read any of his works. But I hadn’t. Like much of popular culture, after a certain time, the details are everywhere—reviewed, rebooted, interpreted, and imitated. I knew Philip Marlowe through and through without having read a single word. (Similarly, I hadn’t seen any of the Star Wars films until my 20s but could hold my own in any conversation about the films.)
It’s a shame that things get put on a pedestal like that because the expectations always overreach and cause an expectation for more. And that’s exactly what happened when I read Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (and watched the Star Wars films, for that matter).
Now, before you do a little PI work yourself and send some goons to help change my mind, chum, hear me out. The Long Goodbye was good. The dialogue was smart and quippy, the plot featured many excellent twists, and for all its genre trappings, it was quite literary. But because ya gotta read Chandler and Chandler is the best, I came away from it thinking it was just good, not great.
The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s sixth Marlowe novel. Originally published in 1953, it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1955. The story begins outside a fancy club called The Dancers, where a chance encounter with a drunk man named Terry Lennox eventually gets Marlowe mixed up in a world of trouble—a world inhabited by the rich and ritzy of Los Angeles’ elite. Embarrassed by his drunken behavior, Lennox’s wife leaves him at the club, and Marlowe drives the man to his home until he can sober up.
The two strike up a sort of friendship—sharing a few early drinks at a quiet bar every now and then—until Lennox shows up at Marlowe’s house late one night asking him to drive him to Tijuana because he is in a great deal of trouble. Details can be implicating, so Marlowe agrees under the conditions that Lennox withhold all specifics of why he needs to escape.
Upon returning home, Marlowe learns that Lennox’s wife was found murdered in their guest house, and he’s arrested on suspicion of murder after refusing to answer the cops’ questions about Lennox’s whereabouts. He spends three days in jail before being released after it’s learned that Lennox was found in a small Mexican town and had committed suicide and left a full confession. Back at the office, Marlowe receives an odd letter from Lennox about his predicament along with a “portrait of Madison,” aka a rare $5,000 bill.
All’s well that ends well, right? Marlowe’s off the hook, and while it’s a shame his friend is dead, at least his involvement in that world died with him. But something about the details of the case doesn’t sit well with our seasoned detective—especially when he’s practically dragged into a seemingly unrelated job involving a famous alcoholic writer and his drop-dead gorgeous wife. The writer, Roger Wade, is known to get blackout drunk and disappear for a few days, but his wife is worried this time and enlists Marlowe’s help in finding him. Easy job, but once he’s returned the writer, he learns the couple knew Lennox, particularly Lennox’s murdered wife.
It’s here that the book gets a bit bloated. The central mystery involving the details of the Lennox case takes a lengthy backseat to Marlowe’s interactions with the Wades. While it’s ultimately an important relationship, the story drags along and seemingly ignores the Lennox case altogether for large chunks of pages.
However, this section is also where a big portion of the literary elements of the novel comes into play. Despite his contemporary success, Chandler was often hurt by critics’ reluctance to include him in literary discussions. In his introduction to Trouble Is My Business (1950), a collection of four of his short stories, Chandler touched on the dichotomy of critique in the genre:
As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. If the formula had been a little less rigid, more of the writing of that time might have survived. Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.
The Long Goodbye was clearly Chandler’s effort at breaking free of formula. It was his longest Marlowe novel by far, and it featured a good deal of social criticism about alcoholism, the wealthy, writing, and crime in general.
We don’t have mobs and crime syndicates and goon squads because we have crooked politicians and their stooges in the City Hall and the legislatures. Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom. Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack. 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.
Around the time Chandler wrote The Long Goodbye, he seemed to be struggling pretty hard with life’s troubles. His wife, Cissy, was dying a slow death due to severe medical issues. He dealt with long bouts of melancholy where he found it difficult to write. He drank constantly. And it all showed in the book. The alcoholic writer who couldn’t seem to finish his book is most definitely Chandler’s way of inserting himself into the story—and likely working through some of his own issues with the help of Marlowe’s tough point of view.
Unfortunately, it’s during this portion of the book that the plot meanders and things sort of fall off the rails before the final denouement. However, it’s clear that Chandler was a master of dialogue and pioneer of hardboiled detective fiction. Now that I’ve read my first Chandler and my expectations have been tempered, I think I’ll go find out what all the fuss is about with Farewell, My Lovely.
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Some fun extra notes about The Long Goodbye
- The novel has been adapted for television three separate times: 1954, with Dick Powell playing Marlowe (he also played Marlowe a decade before in Murder, My Sweet); 1978, with Ed Bishop as Marlowe; and 2011, with Toby Stevens playing the detective.
- Robert Altman adapted The Long Goodbye for the big screen in 1973, with Elliott Gould as Marlowe. The film was quite a departure from the novel—taking several liberties in its retelling—and was not very well received.
- Marlowe’s “picture of Madison” actually existed. High-denomination bills were last printed on December 27, 1945, and officially discontinued on July 14, 1969—though the $5,000 bill had largely disappeared long before then.
- The published version is much different from the first draft. The agency who represented Chandler, Brandt and Brandt, felt Marlowe had grown too soft and would have seen through much of his actions exhibited throughout the novel. While Chandler ultimately agreed and rewrote much of the novel, including the ending—suggesting his mood and despair over his wife’s illness were likely to blame—the sentiment left him sour, and he dropped Brandt and Brandt before publication.
Notes on the 1955 Edgar Awards
- The TV adaptation of The Long Goodbye was nominated for Best Episode in a TV Series but lost to “Smoke,” an episode from the series Suspense written by Gore Vidal.
- Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window took home the Best Motion Picture award.
- Dame Agatha Christie herself was the Grand Master. She also won the award for Best Play for Witness for the Prosecution.
- Best First Novel was awarded to Jean Potts for Go, Lovely Rose.
- Stanley Ellin, who you’ll read more about when we discuss the 1959 winner, won the Best Short Story award for “The House Party.”
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Thanks again for joining us as we work our way through this list. It is never easy following Raymond Chandler, but we have a feeling next year’s winner will be up for the challenge: Margaret Millar for Beast in View. Tune in Friday!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.