Why Marlowe is still the chief of detectives

Fifty years after Raymond Chandler died, we need his ‘shop-soiled’ Galahad Philip Marlowe as much as ever to put our mixed-up world to rights.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

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‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.’ Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

For some of us there may be no such thing as a bad detective novel, but there are none as good as Raymond Chandler’s. Even if you are unfamiliar with Chandler and have not read his Philip Marlowe novels, such is the shadow he cast that you will recognise his universe: a dark corrupt world where men are weak-hearted tough guys, women are available vixens and Hollywood dreams are dashed by ugly reality, while a wisecracking, chain-smoking detective hero stands up for what’s right. ‘I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country’, says Marlowe in a crisis: ‘What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.’

When Chandler died 50 years ago on 26 March 1959, The Times obituary said that ‘in working the common vein of crime fiction, [he] mined the gold of literature’. Today John Sutherland, emeritus professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, tells me that ‘Ray Chandler qualifies as the Proust of the hard-boiled detective novel. For Chandler literary style was all that mattered.’

Standing on the shoulders of Dashiel Hammett – author of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon – Chandler established the ‘realistic’ detective novel that still fills bookshops and websites today. And in Marlowe, a self-styled ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, Chandler set the standard for the detective hero as a flawed ‘man of honour’ in a bad world. In so doing he turned the common murder mystery into a moral tale of modern life. Our still-rapacious appetite for crime novels suggests that we still need Marlowe as much as ever to set our mixed-up world to rights.

Chandler’s own life was as complex as his more incomprehensible plots. Born in Chicago in 1888, he came to England with his divorced mother and was educated at Dulwich College. After a brief London career in the civil service – for which he took British nationality – and as a journalist, Chandler returned to America in 1912. In the First World War he enlisted with the Canadian Gordon Highlanders before joining the new Royal Flying Corps. After the war he became an executive in the oil business, but was fired for drinking and absenteeism.

Chandler started writing detective noir stories in his forties, during the Depression, and had his first novel, The Big Sleep, published at the age of 51. He completed six more Marlowe novels – Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Little Sister, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and Playback – and wrote film scripts for Hollywood – notably The Blue Dahlia and Double Indemnity – while living in California. He was married for 34 years to Cissy, 18 years his senior. She died in 1954, and a heartbroken Chandler died five years later of pneumonia linked to his drinking.

Chandler was a self-confessed cultural snob whose ‘hardboiled’ writing was sneered at by literary critics, though he insisted that the Bard would have written for Hollywood, too. He was an educated Edwardian gentleman who gave voice to people from the wrong side of the tracks in pre- and postwar Los Angeles.

Chandler led the final charge in the American revolution, begun by pulp magazines such as Black Mask, that overthrew the old English-dominated order in the mystery novel. He had no time for the phoney plot twists and cardboard characters deployed by the likes of Agatha Christie in country house murders, and acknowledged Hammett as the writer who first ‘gave murder back to the people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. By the time George Orwell’s 1946 essay was bemoaning the ‘Decline of the English Murder’, Chandler had already buried that tired genre. As Marlowe says, ‘It’s not that kind of story… It’s just dark and full of blood.’

Barry Forshaw, whose books include The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and British Crime Writing: an Encyclopaedia, says ‘Chandler is the master. Hammett may have been the original progenitor of the hardboiled private eye novel, but Chandler refined the form to its nth degree.’ Mark Billingham, whose Tom Thorne novels have marked him out as a rising star of crime writing, thinks that without Chandler, British detective writers ‘would still be writing crime novels set in vicarages, in which the murder would be nice and bloodless and the culprit would almost certainly be lower-class or worse, foreign.’

The revolution in content was reflected in one of style. Chandler had little interest in plotting. When The Big Sleep was turned into a Hollywood movie, director Howard Hawks and star Humphrey Bogart could not agree if one character, the family chauffeur, had been murdered or committed suicide. They wrote to Chandler for clarification of the plot, ‘and dammit’, he later recalled, ‘I didn’t know either’. His interest was in human drama, character and emotion, and he brought them to life through simile-loaded description and dialogue as sharp as an ice pick in the back of the neck that has often been imitated but never bettered.

Ian Rankin, whose Rebus novels top many lists of detective writing, says that: ‘The opening paragraph of The Big Sleep is one of my favourite openings in all literature. Chandler famously saw his task as bringing crime fiction back to the mean streets from the stately homes of the English whodunit. But he did so with style and elegance, as befits a man with a classical English education.’

Chandler did more than update the detective novel. Most importantly he turned it into a moral mirror held up to American society. Despite famously advising aspiring writers that ‘when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns’, little of Chandler fits that simple stereotype. As American crime writer Jeffrey Deaver has noted, ‘There are conflicts aplenty in Philip Marlowe’s world, but they’re usually not the sort that can be solved with a bullet from a .38 or roundhouse punch to a thug’s chin.’

It was through his investigation of those human conflicts that Chandler’s work rose above other traditions in crime writing. Protesting about literary snobbishness towards crime writing, Chandler lashed out against the elitist categorisation of ‘significant literature’: ‘If you have to have significance… it is just possible that the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and yet most complete pattern of the tensions on which we live in this generation.’

This is the deeper enduring appeal of the Chandler crime novel: as a never-exhausted form for investigating the moral tensions and contradictions in the modern city and society, and for resolving them in a way that real life rarely allows.

Although Chandler did not share the Red sympathies of Hammett (believing that there was ‘hardly a hair’s breadth’ between capitalism and communism), his novels assume that little is as it appears on the surface (something which always appealed to an old Marxist such as me), probing the conflicts between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, love and hate, passion and power that shape our lives.

At the centre is Marlowe, a man who is not himself mean, a ‘common man and yet an unusual man’, often lost and alone but never defeated, making a stand against ‘this strange corrupt world in which we live’, run by crooks, crooked cops and rich parasites. Chandler wrote that ‘P Marlowe has as much social conscience as a horse. He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter’, and that Marlowe and he ‘do not despise the upper classes because they take baths and have money; we despise them because they are phoney’. (Chandler also observed that Marlowe is a fantasy figure because in real life no such man would be a private detective, a job done by an ‘ex-policeman with the brains of a turtle or a shabby little hack’.)

Marlowe – the definitive detective – has a strong sense of morality, though his morals are not those found in the Bible or the Bill of Rights. His personal conscience believes that law and justice are not necessarily the same thing – a distinction he shares with Sherlock Holmes, and has bequeathed to many imitators such as Robert Crais’ cracking Elvis Cole – and that violence and law-breaking can be the right thing to do. Chandler established the detective as a very human hero. As Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, has noted, Marlowe has ‘a big streak of integrity down his spine and a moral code of his own. But he is no super-hero, acknowledging as he does his fallibility and his fears’. Chandler was clear that while Marlowe was a moral public man, ‘I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honour in one thing, he is that in all things.’

Marlowe helped to shape generations of fictional detectives on both sides of the Atlantic. Crime writer Val McDermid says the ‘slumped figure of Raymond Chandler still casts a big scary shadow over contemporary crime fiction. Young writers such as Alan Guthrie, Megan Abbott and Charlie Huston are writing extraordinary books that wouldn’t be possible without Chandler’s dark brilliance.’ Mark Billingham notes that Marlowe’s ‘legacy is enormous. Lew Archer, Dave Robicheaux, Matt Scudder, Harry Bosch, John Rebus and my own Tom Thorne are but a few of the “tarnished knights” who owe a debt to Chandler’s original “shop-soiled Galahad”.’ One other thing Marlowe passed down was the detective’s cultural and intellectual idiosyncrasies – for Marlowe’s private poetry-reading and solo replaying of classic chess matches, see the focus on the musical tastes and foibles of today’s fictional detectives, from Morse’s classical Oxford erudite snobbishness to Harry Bosch’s identification with the lonely jazz sax.

Yet just as Chandler moved the detective novel into the modern age, the fictional detectives of today have evolved – and not always for the better. Reflecting the moral uncertainties of our times, many appear less sure of where they stand. For all his self-deprecating wisecracks it is hard to imagine Marlowe self-consciously wondering, as Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Kurt Wallander does, whether today’s hard cases require ‘policemen who don’t suffer from my uncertainty and anguish’, while worrying that some local atrocity signals the end of an entire civilisation.

Today’s detectives often seem more depressed than hardbitten, the drinking that was part of Marlowe’s macho persona now depicted as a problem, even an addiction, in line with contemporary concerns. And those who still smoke are always trying to give up. The detectives are still flawed heroes, still trying to resolve the conflicts and contradictions in society, but the ground appears to have shifted beneath them, taking the line between right and wrong with it. Maybe somebody should write a crime novel called ‘The Case of the Missing Moral Compass’.

It seems particularly ironic now to recall that Chandler’s work was once criticised for being too dark. He responded that his depiction of the underbelly of LA was a ‘burlesque’, a deliberate exaggeration of the truth for dramatic effect. Yet the darkest of Chandler appears clean-cut compared to some crime writing today. Chandler evoked the spirit of noir through mood-setting and language, not cheap graphic gore. Now work that is hailed as ‘dark’ often seems close to putrid, almost unreadable, while some top crime writers such as Patricia Cornwell have abandoned the detective dissecting a body of evidence altogether and focus instead on a pathologist dissecting a corpse.

Despite his cynicism and misanthropic streak, as a solitary drinker who claimed to prefer talking to his cat rather than fellow humans, some of these writers make Chandler almost seem like an optimistic humanist. In a rare sympathetic remark about the brutish LA cops, Marlowe observes that their inhumane behaviour is in a sense understandable: ‘Civilisation had no meaning for them. All they saw of it was the failures, the dirt, the dregs, the aberrations and the disgust.’ You might say much the same of some mystery writers these days, only without the excuse of experience. And unlike too many of them, Chandler’s mysteries did not end up inevitably focusing on a history of child abuse as the secret behind every tragedy.

Chandler’s own prejudices, however, would not mark so highly today. From the 1980s he was caught in a retrospective backlash against literary political incorrectness. It is true that Marlowe sometimes employs language – nigger, shine, pansy – that no hero would use now. Yet that seems little more than a realistic representation of a man of his time. More serious accusations of anti-Semitism have been countered by Chandler’s recent biographers. Those who accuse Chandler of misogyny, however, might appear on stronger ground: the worst villains in his novels often turn out to be women. The crime writer Natasha Cooper, author of the Trish Maguire mysteries, says that ‘his novels generally appeal more to men than to women, perhaps because he romanticises the figure of the brave, sad, honest loner, tormented by wicked, manipulative women and usually seeing the world through the bottom of a bottle. But the language is fun.’

Yet Chandler should not be seen as an outdated reactionary like Mickey Spillane, whose comic book ‘Commie-whupping’ detective Mike Hammer fought the Cold War. Chandler did not self-consciously tackle ‘ishoos’ as many crime writers attempt to do today. But nevertheless his detective novels produced a cutting indictment of what lay beneath the brittle veneer of Hollywood and La-la land before and after the war; as Ian Rankin has it, ‘he took a scalpel and sliced open the shiny surface of modern America to show a society whose insides were sclerotic’.

As a private detective, an un-mean man alone, Marlowe belongs to the old school of American individualism. Today almost all fictional detectives are serving policemen, especially in Britain but increasingly in the US. Perhaps that, too, is a reflection of changing realities, as the power of the state machinery has spread in Britain, Europe and America. Working from the inside of the machine, fictional detectives now find themselves hampered by the system rather than beaten up by the police, few worse than Chief Inspector Chen, Que Xiaolong’s Shanghai detective trapped within the bureaucracy of the post-Communist state.

Andy Hayman, former anti-terrorism commander at Scotland Yard, tells me that while British cops have often dismissed crime fiction as ‘too exaggerated and hyper-critical’, more have been brought round as fictional detectives such as Morse or Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect present a more realistic view of police procedures that has ‘the ring of authority, less pie-in-the-sky’. He was impressed with a recent address on the future of policing by veteran crime writer Dame PD James, who had senior officers ‘spellbound’. It is hard to imagine policemen speaking so highly of Chandler.

While every detective on TV or in film owes him a debt, many today might only know Marlowe through the movies of the books (Chandler considered Humphrey Bogart ‘the genuine article’ in the part, while Alan Ladd was ‘a small boy’s idea of a tough guy’), or through affectionate send-ups such as Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. The fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death seems a timely excuse for introducing them to ‘P Marlowe, a simple alcoholic vulgarian who never sleeps with his clients while on duty’ and ‘marks high on insubordination’. Hamish Hamilton have marked the half century by reissuing five of his novels with stylish reproduction early-edition hardback covers.

Chandler’s conclusion about the hero detective in his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ might sound a touch corny to modern ears, but it rings true down the years: ‘If there were enough like him, the world would be a safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.’ Meanwhile we still await the definitive London detective to walk the mean streets of Dulwich or Westminster or Walthamstow.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Raymond Chandler, Hamish Hamilton have reissued five of his most well-known titles with their original vintage covers. Click here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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