Commentary Magazine


Raymond Chandler, Private Eye

In reading Raymond Chandler Speaking,1 a collection of the late mystery writer’s letters and literary fragments, one gets a sense of the peculiar loneliness of the writer of integrity who works in a popular genre that attracts few writers like himself and that the American literary culture tends to dismiss with easy, contemptuous generalizations. Chandler was a talented and devoted craftsman, one who spent his life either in spurts of hard work on his novels or in long periods of lying fallow and brooding about the lack of serious understanding and appreciation with which his work was received. Of non-literary topics, only cats—traditional companions of the lonely and disaffected—appear to have interested Chandler very deeply.

It is from the letters in this volume—about two hundred in all, addressed mainly to publishers, agents, and fellow writers of popular fiction—that one senses the kind of isolation that Chandler experienced during his career. In one letter he writes as follows:

A thriller writer in England, if he is good enough, is just as good as anyone else. There is none of that snobbism which makes a fourth-rate serious novelist, without style or any real talent, superior to the mystery writer. . . . I don’t think somehow we shall ever reach that status in America. . . . I’m afraid our instinct for classification is too strong.

At the same time, this feeling of being left out, of working at a vocation in which one’s best and most conscientious efforts were underrated and misunderstood, can also be seen to have informed Chandler’s fiction.

His great theme was not crime and punishment, though his letters reveal him to have had a sound technical knowledge of criminal history, psychology, and technique. His theme was, rather, an exploration of the belief that the moral man, who refuses to play the game of life in a conventionally immoral or amoral way, is doomed to the kind of loneliness Chandler himself suffered.

This understanding of Chandler and his theme provides, in turn, for speculation about the decline of a once promising figure in popular mythology, the private eye. As created by Dashiell Hammett and developed by Chandler, this figure offered a unique perspective on loneliness as a central condition of modern urban existence. Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective, masked his feeling of emptiness behind a protective set of tough-guy mannerisms, and it is because Chandler’s legion of imitators borrowed them, but not Marlowe’s inner spirit, that the hard school is no longer very interesting. The books are sometimes amusing as puzzles, but nothing about them catches in the mind. Marlowe did.

The successors to Marlowe lead lives of breath-taking excitement. One races headlong through the books, borne mindlessly along by a succession of cheap thrills. Marlowe, like his creator, was a plodder, the intensity of his dangerous moments heightened by the contrast with the lonely boredom of his normal life. This gave Chandler the opportunity to write about boredom, that great modern subject, without ultimately becoming boring himself. A quick turn of the plot always saved him and the reader from ennui.

Except for these flashes of excitement, Marlowe was very much the average unmarried lower-middle-class citizen of a great American city. There is genuine poignancy in the lot of these people. Their work has brought them to the city but does not reward them sufficiently to enjoy its pleasures. Barred from the fashionable world, yet given tantalizing glimpses of it, they bury their envy in the routine amusements of movies, television, and drinking in bars, and discover that these cannot completely deaden desire.

Chandler was a master of this milieu. Of today’s serious writers, only Graham Greene has given us a comparable rendering of the habits and habitats of the individual at loose ends in a great city. Greene came, in time, to see the squalor of the bed-sitting room as a symbol of man’s alienation from God. Chandler never went quite that far. A striving for faith becomes the moral imperative in Greene’s later work. A gruff, typically American sentimentality is Chandler’s equivalent to it. It is pragmatic and limited; it says no more than that everybody has the right to be left alone. So, with Chandler, mood becomes dominant, and response to it is everything in the appreciation of his work.

The atmosphere of cheap furnished apartments, of second-rate bars where one can always find a conversation and sometimes a woman, the very feel of an empty city street to the man who has just killed the evening alone in a second-run movie house, are done with wonderful Tightness. So are the psychic defenses of the lonely man. Marlowe plays endless games of chess with himself, carefully setting up the classic problems, then spending the evening trying to solve them, sipping at a bourbon highball. He is persnickety, in an old-maidish way, about small things like coffee. The careful construction of an ideal cup of it occupies a lovingly written paragraph in almost every Marlowe novel. In fact, popular misapprehension to the contrary, Marlowe is more interested in good coffee than he is in booze, good or otherwise. Nor is Marlowe much of a boudoir athlete. He is rather offhand about women, perhaps a little defensive. Physically, of course, he needs them, but emotionally he knows they pose a threat to his independence. Consequently, he is wary, though gallant, in his treatment of them.

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But why, since Marlowe is reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, does he do nothing to change his lot? Chandler answers this question in one of his letters, stating explicitly what is implicit in the novels.

If being in revolt against a corrupt society constitutes being immature, then Philip Marlowe is extremely immature. If seeing dirt where there is dirt constitutes an inadequate social adjustment, then Philip Marlowe has inadequate social adjustment. Of course Marlowe is a failure and usually he knows it. He is a failure because he hasn’t any money. A man who without physical handicaps cannot make a decent living is always a failure and usually a moral failure. But a lot of very good men have been failures because their particular talents did not suit their time and place.

The trouble with Marlowe’s successors in fiction and in the mass media is that their talents all too well suit their time and place.

The very presence of Marlowe in his shabby suit in his seedy office in unfashionable downtown Los Angeles was a criticism of the fast operators who were always trying to enlist his honesty in support of their crooked, but frequently respectable-seeming, schemes. One can only wonder what poor old Marlowe would have thought of well-groomed Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and his fancy layout at “77 Sunset Strip.” Probably he would have suspected him of fronting a numbers racket.

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Where Chandler set out to record the experience of urban loneliness, his successors, for the most part, merely cater to that experience, offering ready-made daydreams to help the sufferer while away the lonely stretch from the end of dinner to bedtime. These detectives seem only accidentally to be on the side of morality; so shifty are their standards that one can as easily imagine them working for “the syndicate” (a fantasy creation in itself, and one that Chandler had no truck with) as against it. They live too fast and too well, they tumble into bed too easily with the proliferation of unbelievably desirable women who people their books. They are insiders in an affluent society. Marlowe was always outside and his conflicts had a dimension beyond the simple one of cops vs. robbers.

When he finished the first draft of his most solid piece of work, The Long Goodbye, Chandler wrote:

What is largely boring about mystery stories, at least on a literate plane, is that the characters get lost about a third of the way through. Often the opening, the mise en scène, the establishment of the background, is very good. Then the plot thickens and the people become mere names. Well, what can you do to avoid this? You can write constant action and that is fine if you really enjoy it. But alas, one grows up, one becomes complicated and unsure, one becomes interested in moral dilemmas, rather than in who cracked who on the head. . . . Anyhow I wrote [The Long Goodbye] as I wanted to because I can do that now. I don’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about this strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.

The two great private detectives of the hard school, Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade, were both code heroes, like those of Hemingway (whose style also had its influence on that school). As Leslie Fiedler has pointed out, Hemingway’s heroes bear more than a superficial resemblance to the Western heroes of popular culture. Consciously or unconsciously, the classic private eye represents an attempt to transfer the man with a code from the lost Eden of the 19th-century American West to the modern Jungle of the Cities. Hammett was the first to make the attempt in the pulp magazines of the 20′s. His original private eye, the Continental Op, discovered that his code of personal conduct, which consisted mostly of “doing the job,” was inadequate to cope with the magnitude of the evil opposed to him. Hammett, a leftist, regarded moral evil as economically determined, and though his detective remained apolitical, his books, nevertheless, drew a political lesson. Since Hammett was a writer first and a political animal second, during the four years in which he wrote his novels he never tried to supply his heroes with social consciousness. Rather, they seemed to cling more and more desperately to the code of “the job.” Sam Spade actually turns in his girl to the police rather than defile the code. Hammett himself, however, grew increasingly aware of the distance between the code and his political beliefs. He wrote “The Thin Man,” a slick crime comedy with no moral tow whatever, in 1932, and then fell silent, unable to bridge the gap between his special skills as a writer and his political beliefs. In 1939 Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, and introduced Marlowe to the world. His tales would not be as bloody or as smoothly fast-moving as Hammett’s, but Marlowe would prove to be a character of more depth than any Hammett ever created.

Marlowe rarely tangled with the kind of organized crime that the Continental Op encountered in Red Harvest. He was called upon only to pit his private morality against private immorality. Even so, the literary left tried to claim Marlowe for its own, tried to invest his struggle against evil with political significance. Chandler resented this deeply. As far as he was concerned, politics was merely an extension of criminality by legal, but certainly not moral, means; he never fell victim to the kind of inner conflict that silenced Hammett.

Still, like it or not, Marlowe was a class figure. He was most believable when there were distinct differences between the styles of the rich, or at least upper middle class, and lower middle class. He began to seem a little out of place in the prosperous 50′s, when even college professors were being cut in on the wealthiest society in human history. His stubborn refusal to join up with the rest of society seemed more eccentric than heroic, more adolescent than mature. Ian Fleming’s James Bond, that cold, amoral, elegant killer, replaced Marlowe as our prime fictional detective. Curiously, in the fragment of the novel which Chandler left unfinished when he died in 1959, he had married Marlowe off—to an heiress, no less. The idea was not his; it was a friend’s. But it is easy to see why it had a certain appeal to the writer. Besides giving him a new situation in which to place his man, it also made him seem less unnatural. Marlowe had begun to suffer from cultural lag.

Chandler was not happy with the marriage although he gave it a good try. “The contest between what she wants Marlowe to do and what he will insist on doing will make a good subplot,” he insisted in one note. “I don’t know how it will turn out, but she’ll never tame him.”

This was the first entirely new novel Chandler attempted after the death of his wife, an event which had sent him off on a monumental drunk and a bungled suicide attempt; and there is something touching about his attempt to give Marlowe the marital stability he had enjoyed but which he had now lost. The symbiotic relationship between a writer and an ongoing character has rarely been made more clear, and mere is, obviously, a relationship between Chandler’s dedication as a writer and Marlowe’s as a detective. They are different manifestations of the same impulse to professionalism.

The last letter in the present collection is to me friend who had suggested marriage for Marlowe, and by now Chandler has strong reservations about the match. Chandler writes:

A fellow of Marlowe’s type shouldn’t get married, because he is a lonely man, a poor man, a dangerous man, and yet a sympathetic man, and somehow none of this goes with marriage. I think he will always have a fairly shabby office, a lonely house, a number of affairs, but no permanent connection. I mink he will always be awakened at some inconvenient hour by some inconvenient person to do some inconvenient job. It seems to me mat this is his destiny—possibly not the best destiny in the world, but it belongs to him. No one will ever beat him, because by his nature he is unbeatable. No one will ever make him rich, because he is destined to be poor. But somehow, I think he would not have it otherwise. . . . I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated. . . .

It is a measure of the specific gravity of Chandler’s creation mat the writer’s final summing up of the Marlowe character does not seem pretentious and that in his work mere is ample evidence to support it. It is a measure of the private eye’s decline that no fictional operative today could possibly elicit such a description. Chandler, in his concern with the real psychological issues of his time, and in his ability to focus these issues by his excellent anti-hero, was at least me equal of a middle rank “serious” novelist—perhaps the equal, on occasion, of a first-rate one.

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Footnotes

1 Edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, Houghton Mifflin, 271 pp., $4.00.

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