Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is grim and funny, its protagonist, Philip Marlowe, half hardboiled and mean, half incorruptible and true. The Long Goodbye is a detective novel, but thanks to Marlowe’s narration the story resonates beyond a narrow classification. The quality of Marlowe’s observation as a narrator fills in the backstory the reader needs, both to add texture to the story and to provide details about the characters. All-out backstory is limited, hinted at, just enough to provide enough information for understanding the present of the story. The specificity of detail, in turn, does a lot of work: the details crank up the tension in the book’s plot; they tell the reader a lot about Marlowe as an investigator and as a man; and they integrate the novel’s past and present into a cohesive narrative.
The novel’s first line sets us up well: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers” (3). We know exactly what kind of person Terry Lennox is, and Chandler doesn’t need to give us any background on how Marlowe and Lennox met because their meeting is the crux of their novel. Another early paragraph describes Marlowe’s house:
“I was living that year in a house on Yucca Avenue in the Laurel Canyon district…. It was furnished, and it belonged to a woman who had gone to Idaho to live with her widowed daughter for a while. The rent was low, partly because the owner wanted to be able to come back on short notice, and partly because of the steps” (6).
This backstory paragraph tells us what kind of person Marlowe is, and sets up an architectural detail that will become important at the end of the novel, when the steps’ quirks allow Marlowe to literally dodge a bullet. But other elements of Marlowe’s character and his past are hinted at, dropped in deftly and quietly:
“[Christmas] would be terrible anyway; it always is.” (9)
“In the dunk tank it is not so good. No bunk, no chair, no blankets, no nothing. You lie on the concrete floor. You sit on the toilet and vomit in your own lap. That is the depth of misery. I’ve seen it.” (51)
“Every cocktail party is the same, even the dialogue.” (180)
“I got to my feet and it took character. It took will power. It took a lot out of me, and there wasn’t as much to spare as there once had been.” (215)
Throughout the novel Chandler carefully details place and people. In one instance, Chandler has Marlowe linger on the details of the Wades’ home (199) so that we assume those details will become important later, and they do (208, 272). The details about each person, in particular, tell the reader who the characters are, not merely what they look like. As a narrator, Marlowe describes people in just the way an investigator would: he is keenly observant, and records the details important to sketching out a compelling, believable character that might have actually walked around and committed some nefarious deed:
“He could have passed for thirty-five if you didn’t look at the backs of his hands” (156).
“He talked the way New Yorkers used to talk before they learned to talk Flatbush… He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel. Over the phone, anyway” (82).
We like the quality of his observations. They tell us something about Marlowe:
“You can always tell when a man is writing his own name. He has a special way of moving” (65).
“There was the usual light scattering of compulsive drinkers getting tuned up at the bar on the stools, the kind that reach very slowly for the first on and watch their hands so they won’t knock anything over” (21).
“There was a bitterness in his voice that was new to me” (19).
These details show us that Marlowe has a soft heart that can lead him astray with compassion, and that his intuition isn’t always the best for his business—a quality on which the whole novel depends.