The Long Goodbye Plot Summary
As refresher for those who haven’t read The Long Goodbye in a while, here is synopsis of the plot to help keep things straight when reading the article Writing The Long Goodbye.
SPOILER ALERT: this pretty much gives the whole plot away, so don't go any further if you haven't read the book (and want to do so in blissful ignorance).
The novel opens with private eye Philip Marlowe coming to the rescue of a drunk named Terry Lennox as he is unceremoniously dumped in a nightclub parking lot by his ex-wife Sylvia. With Marlowe’s assistance, and that of Las Vegas casino operators Mendy Menendez and Randy Starr with whom Lennox served during World War II, he gets back on his feet. He remarries Sylvia, but continues to meet Marlowe periodically for drinks. Then late one night he appears at Marlowe’s door and asks to be driven to Tijuana. Marlowe agrees, although it is apparent—but never explicitly stated—that Lennox is running because he discovered his wife dead in the guest house behind their mansion, a guest house in which she often conducted affairs with other men.
Upon his return, Marlowe is booked on suspicion of murder, but he refuses to make a statement of any sort, nor does he let Sewell Endicott, a lawyer hired by Sylvia’s rich father Harlan Potter, post bail. He is finally released after being told that Lennox was found dead of a suicide in Otatoclán, Mexico with a full confession to the murder beside him. Marlowe does not believe that Lennox killed Sylvia, but the next day he is told by both Sewell Endicott and Mendy Menendez to let the matter drop. A few days after that, he receives a letter Lennox mailed just before the apparent suicide. It contains a “portrait of Madison” (a $5,000 bill) and a thank you from Lennox for all the help Marlowe has given him.
A New York publisher named Howard Spencer calls Marlowe to baby sit Roger Wade, one of his best selling-writers, who Spencer says is drinking to cover a deep-seated worry—such as a blackmail threat—and is unable to write. Marlowe initially refuses, but agrees to get involved when Wade’s wife visits him personally and begs him to locate her husband, who has now disappeared on a bender. During the course of their conversation, it becomes clear that she knew the Lennox family, and it later develops that both the Wades know Sylvia’s sister Linda and her husband Dr. Loring, who is Eileen’s personal physician.
Marlowe locates Wade at a defunct dude ranch and Wade also tries to convince Marlowe to help him stay in harness while he finishes his current novel. Marlowe again declines, but ends up visiting the Wade house twice more to attend a cocktail party and to help Eileen cope with Wade when he passes out drunk in the front lawn. During these visits Marlowe learns that Wade knew Sylvia Lennox and had an affair with her. He also learns that Eileen’s first love was a man with his (Marlowe’s) initials who died during World War II. Finally, he finds himself at the receiving end of a pass thrown by Eileen when she mistakes Marlowe for that same lover while in a kind of trance.
During a third visit to the house to join Wade for lunch, Marlowe watches as Wade drinks himself into a stupor. Marlowe leaves him in his office and goes out on the patio to watch a motorboat and water skier on the lake behind the house, but returns inside when he hears the door bell ring. Eileen is on the doorstep claiming she's forgotten her keys. Eileen heads up to her room and Marlowe goes back to the study to find Wade dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He realizes the sound of the motorboat must have covered the shot. When Eileen comes down, Marlowe informs her Wade is dead and she accuses him of murdering her husband.
Wade’s servant Candy also tries to fit Marlowe for the murder, but he is cleared during a police interrogation. Acting on a tip from another PI, Marlowe discovers that Terry Lennox was actually named Paul Marston and was secretly married to Eileen during the war. Eileen remarried when Marston went MIA from a commando raid off the coast of Norway. When Spencer calls Marlowe regarding Wade’s death, Marlowe gets into the Wade house on Spencer’s ticket for a showdown with Eileen. Marlowe tricks her into making conflicting statements that implicate her in the murders of both Sylvia Lennox and Roger Wade. Then she commits suicide with pills prescribed by Dr. Loring, leaving a note where she confesses fully to both crimes.
Marlowe contrives to have the suicide note published by the local paper, publicly clearing Terry Lennox of all wrong-doing and embarrassing both the police department and Harlan Potter, who tried from the beginning to suppress the whole affair. It also prompts Menendez to ambush Marlowe as Marlowe has not heeded his warning to let the matter drop.
At the end of the novel, a well-dressed Mexican man named Cisco Maioranos visits Marlowe at his office. He claims to be the hotel employee in Otatoclán who mailed the letter with the $5,000 bill, but Marlowe recognizes him as Lennox. Out of a debt owed to him from his actions during the war, Menendez and Randy Starr have paid to have Lennox’s suicide faked and have given him a new appearance with plastic surgery. Marlowe rebuffs Lennox for what he sees as his moral bankruptcy (among other things, the charade in Mexico has allowed Wade to be killed) and Lennox walks away the office in the final goodbye.