The year is 1953. The setting is Los Angeles. Raymond Chandler has just published his now-famous work The Long Goodbye. The novel itself is set in Chandler’s reflection of a Los Angeles depraved by racketeering, gambling and institutional corruption, and Chandler’s protagonist Philip Marlowe seems a projection of both a detective alone in his setting and a genre bidding goodbye to a stagnant form no longer able to support a classical, methodical private investigator in an ever-transitioning world. Only in Chandler’s vision do we see a bridge linking the championing of keen perception in Sherlock Holmes and the rye, hardboiled grim reality of social awareness in Marlowe. Somewhere buried within the overlap of Chandler’s Los Angeles and Marlowe’s Los Angeles seems to be an historical red flag, a self-aware and paranoid key to interpreting the social complexities that burden endlessly both the identity of the city of itself and the characters acting within its space. Encoded in the fictitious interactions of characters such as Marlowe and the shifty Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye is a dark understanding of the convoluted relationship between the evolution of urbanity and the sensibilities of its inhabitants.
In the opening chapters of the novel, Chandler introduces the reader to the space of an overtly commercial Los Angeles and the social problems the city impresses upon a buckling class system. Marlowe’s first accounts of his meetings with the alcoholic Lennox are founded on a coincidence with men and the laws that attempt to govern them:
“It was the week after Thanksgiving when I saw him again. The stores along Hollywood Boulevard were already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk, and the daily papers were beginning to scream about how terrible it would be if you didn’t get your Christmas shopping done early. It would be terrible anyway; it always is… about three blocks from my office building I saw a cop car double-parked and the two buttons in it staring at something over by a shop window on the sidewalk. The something was Terry Lennox—or what was left of him—and that little was not too attractive.” (Chandler, 9)
Notice Marlowe’s attention to detail; he is giving us a simultaneously focused and sweeping view of a tiny microcosm of the city itself. Marlowe’s anti-commercial sentiments are revealed in his scathing review of Christmas in Los Angeles and the accompanying business forced upon its residents, even those who don’t celebrate. A tone of confident cynicism is evident in the statement, “It would be terrible anyway, it always is…” The first half of this passage serves as a foundation for Marlowe’s unsympathetic view of the various systems of the world, and possibly by extrapolation, Chandler’s view as well. The second half pits the institution of law against those forced to break it by circumstance, choice, compulsion, or a combination of the three. Of course, every detail is here for a reason: the cops “double-parked” within the space of this scene suggest not just a happenstance but a consistent disregard for the rules they are paid to enforce, not to mention an absent mind to the role they play as models of the system. Chandler is careful, then, to project a somewhat sympathetic first glimpse of Lennox of as an object or an animal, a victim of his circumstances. At once heroic and anti-heroic, Marlowe sees Lennox, with his “dirty shirt” and his “pinched nose” and his “skin so pale that the long thin scars hardly showed” and intervenes between the city and the subject. (Chandler, 9) Again, every detail is crucial to interpreting the city and its inhabitants, and Lennox’s face and appearance seems to reflect the face and appearance of the city. What compels Marlowe to intervene seems to be the irresistible quality of a contradicting manner and appearance betraying a mystery behind the man, and it is at this moment both Lennox and Marlowe are inevitably drawn (by what appears to be coincidence) into an unfolding series of internal and external mysteries.
Marlowe’s curiosity saves the intoxicated Lennox from the scrutiny of the law, but interestingly enough, Marlowe launches an interrogation of his own, a common theme that blurs the line between policing and investigating and repeats several times before the novel’s conclusion. More often than not, however, Lennox betrays his own secrets before Marlowe has even breached the surface of the investigation. What perpetuates this could be the fact that Lennox is aware of Philip Marlowe’s fame as a private investigator, or perhaps Lennox’s placement of undue trust in others before himself, regardless of whether the “other” happens to be of law-abiding character or criminal. Equally as likely as the surrender, Lennox steers the confession toward his habitual nature as an addict:
‘“Oh I have friends,” he said, “of a sort.” He turned his glass on the table top. “Asking for help doesn’t come easy—especially when it’s all your own fault.” He looked up with a tired smile. “Maybe I can quit drinking one of these days. They all say that, don’t they?”
“It takes about three years.”
“Three years? He looked shocked.
“Usually it does. It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colors, a quieter lot of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.”
“That wouldn’t be too much of a change,” he said.’ (Chandler 11-12)
Notice Marlowe is familiar with the plight of alcoholism, the origin of his knowledge as personal or trivial dubious but betraying. This conversation seems directly out of a modern-day therapy session, only such avenues and such knowledge were clearly not as widespread as they are today. Look at the construction of Marlowe’s sober world as timeless, almost living dialogue from Chandler to himself. Lennox indicates the changes, “paler… colors, a quieter lot of sounds…people you used to know well [getting] to be just a little strange,” would be less shocking than the time it takes for the mind and heart to accept the transition and reinterpret the world. Indeed, Lennox appears to be a diseased prisoner of spatial warfare without fully understanding how or why, and Marlowe his confidant and adviser, a veteran struggling to force his client to reckon the implication of his confessions with the reflections they project. The apparent honesty of Lennox’s self-criticism might sway some detectives to his plight, as he sheepishly groups himself with the “they” of the first paragraph, likely referencing the plight of addicts, but as Marlowe usually does, he notes the self-pity and does not indulge his client’s fantasy of hard-fought struggle. Instead, Marlowe directly intercuts Lennox’s distorted vision of reality brought on by years of substance use with the harsh truth: behavioral change, and by extrapolation, changes to self-perception and worldview, is neither easy nor fast-acting. In a world where Los Angeles cannot have a distinct identity because its inhabitants’ composition and identity are ever-changing, Marlowe attempts to help Lennox realize his statuses as alien; Lennox is relatable as an immigrant of geography and class, and these past identities that he refuses to confront could be the heart of his identity crisis. This historically aware construction of Lennox as an outsider to himself first and his surroundings second might be one reason immigrants of Los Angeles past and present become immigrants of reality, and at some point in their own plot cry for help (as Lennox does indiscriminately), unaware that others can only help them to an end, the real solution lying inside one’s misshapen construction of self and reality.
Perhaps Marlowe never succeeds at helping Lennox confront himself, the cyclical nature of societal agents acting upon its constituents inhibiting healthy growth or long-lasting change. Perhaps every character in the novel is misguided. Perhaps the mystery is not the murder, or even the scene, but rather the way oneself, the story, even the narrator, is constructed, dismantled, interpreted, and finally, possibly reconstructed. Readers come to believe Lennox dies early in the novel, only to find 300 pages later that the external mystery as constructed by Chandler is not what it seems. Terry Lennox returns in disguise as Senor Maioranos and finally Senor Lennox, complete with a “new” face. Marlowe is immediately drawn to a perfumed Senor Maioranos by “damned dainty” eyebrows and “knife scars on both sides of his face.” (Chandler 370) Compare this with Lennox’s scent of alcohol and dirty appearance at the beginning of the novel. Lennox’s appearance has changed, but his self-contradiction remains irresistible to curiosity:
“They had done a wonderful job on him in Mexico City, but why not? Their doctors, technicians, hospitals, painters, architects are as good as ours. Sometimes a little better. A Mexican cop invented the paraffin test for powder nitrates. They couldn’t make Terry’s face perfect, but they had done plenty. They had even changed his nose, taken out some bone and made it look flatter, less Nordic. They couldn’t eliminate every trace of a scar, so they had put a couple on the other side of his face too. Knife scars are not uncommon in Latin countries.” (Chandler, 375)
Notice the effortless shift from the subject of “him” to “Mexico City,” perhaps because the two are interchangeable. Lennox is cemented permanently as a temporary alien of the world. I only ask that a reader re-read this passage with one minor adjustment: “Terry” becomes “Terra.” Terra then could be considered Los Angeles, with the references to “Latin countries” pointing to the rapidly evolving nature of the city, which, in Marlowe’s eyes, is both a mirage and an enabler for immigrants seeking identity. Chandler is deliberately using Marlowe to observe the space and the face of his surroundings from a distance and yet remain unaware of the implications of his own seemingly well-balanced feelings. A careful reader begins to compile metaphors and contemplate prejudices and perhaps connect characters and issues that aren’t meant to be connected. One connection that is evident and unavoidable, however, is that Marlowe has betrayed Chandler, or should we say Chandler betrayed himself. If Marlowe was considered throughout the novel as a Sherlock Holmesian detective, with few imperfections lapses in judgment, method, after 300 pages he is different, prejudiced. Even the tone is one of concession and half-hearted acknowledgment to Mexico City rather than excitement or bewilderment. The brilliant mystery at play here is what Chandler is betraying with his words and whether Marlowe realizes he has finally constructed the solution to his own mystery. After all, Marlowe just a few pages earlier described the solution to the external crime-related mystery almost perfectly (with a few imperfections) to Senor Lennox himself.
So why does the novel continue after the crime has been solved, after Lennox’s new identity has been revealed? It seems the mystery Marlowe was investigating happened to be his own all along. In the final chapter of the novel, Marlowe seems to be indifferent to Lennox’s future, telling Terry not to “worry about it… there’s always somebody around to do it for you.” (Chandler, 378) In actuality, Marlowe is overcompensating for his inability to bid farewell again to someone or thing he is truly attached to – someone, perhaps, he overinvested in to draw the attention from his own deplorable situation. As is customary in fiction, Chandler gives both Marlowe and Lennox opportunities for real change, but in the end, inevitably, neither of them completely achieves his goal. Marlowe’s dismissal of Lennox’s new identity as healthy change once again jars the scarred former Commando into blaming his situation on his history, namely “Nazi doctors.” (Chandler, 378) Marlowe fails to bring Lennox to the realization that perhaps what happened during wartime happened for no reason whatsoever, that all pain does not have to node back to a central experience. Marlowe even fails to realize the hypocrisy of his stern judgment upon Lennox, as he too is addicted to a mystery he cannot solve, choosing to escape into the fantastic rather than his own reality. Just as Marlowe let his client walk out the door earlier in the novel, he does so yet again, sealing his fate:
“He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop suddenly and turn and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.
I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”(Chandler, 379)
Notice again the strange quality of the details and what it betrays. This is not the record of detail someone gives about a mere client. As the scene reads in real-time through Marlowe’s description, we are left with an almost cinematically long farewell. The passage feels final, but Marlowe questions his inaction briefly. The inner dialogue as evidenced by the question “What for?” suggests Marlowe feels pressure to change but doesn’t understand himself quite well enough to rationalize his sudden thoughts or desires. Perhaps Marlowe considers his work on the external mystery a failure because he never quite solves Lennox’s mystery, or his own for that matter. It appears that Marlowe’s resentment toward the city at large, and inability to open a cold case (by accepting Lennox’s new identity) of friendship will go unchallenged not because Lennox didn’t come back to persuade him, but because Marlowe knows he is more like Lennox than he cares to admit. The aspect of his self-identity that might once have understood the fugitive Lennox within himself has long since bid adieu. Much like Lennox, much like his beloved conception of Los Angeles, that side of himself is never coming back. As for the cops of Los Angeles, the end is in the beginning, and we started with the law personified. It seems Chandler and Marlowe, unlike the majority of the world’s clients, will forever be at odds with themselves, unable in conscience to completely drink away their moral shortcomings or project failures of the self upon an external system.