In May, 1948, in an article in Harper’s magazine titled “The Guilty Vicarage,” W. H. Auden wrote, “Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.” This assessment pleased Chandler, for it confirmed that he had moved detective fiction toward the realm of literature.
Chandler’s education in an English public school taught him high standards for writing. It also left him with a distinctly British writing style. In the five years he worked for Black Mask magazine, Chandler taught himself to write in the voice of the American vernacular. He both transmitted and invented colloquialisms. Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, the narrator of all seven of Chandler’s novels, speaks in colorful slang that captures and holds the reader’s interest. He is famous for his startling similes, such as the one at the beginning of Farewell, My Lovely in which he describes the thug Moose Malloy: “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
Mystery stories often rely on dramatic irony—that is, the reader knows something that the detective does not know. Chandler sets himself a difficult problem when he makes Marlowe the narrator, because the reader cannot have any knowledge of events that occur outside the detective’s perceptions. On the other hand, the reader becomes privy to Marlowe’s thoughts and emotions, which lends Chandler’s novels a greater depth than that found in most other mystery stories.
The name Marlowe may be a play on the name of Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote the Arthurian romance Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485. Indeed, Philip Marlowe behaves like a valiant knight fighting evil in the tradition of chivalry, and there are references to the world of knights in shining armor throughout Chandler’s novels. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe approaches his client’s house and notices a stained-glass window above the entrance that shows “a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair.” Marlowe speculates that he might eventually have to go up and help him. Later in the novel, he looks down at his chessboard and comments, “The move with the knight was wrong. . . . Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” The title of the novel Lady in the Lake, in fact, refers to the woman who gave King Arthur the sword Excalibur. In The High Window, when Marlowe rescues a secretary held captive by her domineering boss, her attending physician calls him a “shop-soiled Galahad.”
Philip Marlowe remains true to his knightly code of honor in a sinful world by avoiding its temptations: money and sex. He will never accept more than his standard fee, though he works overtime and often gets beaten up. He always refuses a bribe. He is working not out of a desire for money, but out of a sense of compassion for the weak victims of the world. He expresses contempt for the idle rich and for policemen who allow themselves to become corrupt.
He remains chaste through most of the novels as well. Beautiful, blond women often tempt him, but they usually turn out to be evil or crazy. When Carmen Sternwood shows up naked in his bed in The Big Sleep, he kicks her out of his apartment. Then, in a fit of revulsion, he savagely tears the sheets off his bed. When Marlowe meets a nice girl, such as Anne Riordan in Farewell, My Lovely, he describes her by saying, “Her nose was small and inquisitive, her upper lip a shade too long and her mouth more than a shade too wide.” Her hair is brown, not blond, however, so Marlowe is not really attracted to her. “She looked as if she had slept well. . . . Nice teeth, rather large.” He is trapped in that traditional male quandary: He respects the nice woman, the madonna, but he is sexually attracted to the whore.
Eventually Marlowe does sleep with a woman: Linda Loring in The Long Goodbye. Their encounter is a perfunctory one-night stand during which she begs him to marry her and he refuses. In Playback, Chandler’s last and least respected novel, Marlowe actually marries, yet his sexual escapades seem gratuitous and sadistic. His “romantic” interlude with the character Berry Mayfield sounds almost like a rape:She started for the door, but I caught her by the wrist and spun her around. . . . I must have been leering a little because she suddenly curled her fingers and tried to claw me. . . . I got the other wrist and started to pull her closer. She tried to knee me in the groin, but she was already too close. Then she went limp and pulled her head back and closed her eyes.
Some critics have suggested that Marlowe remains chaste not because he is following a code of honor, but because he really prefers men to women. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe meets a sailor, Red Norgaard, and describes him in a way that leaves no doubt that Marlowe finds him attractive:He had the eyes you never see, that you only read about. Violet eyes. Almost purple. Eyes like a girl, a lovely girl. His skin was as soft as silk. Lightly reddened, but it would never tan. . . . His hair was that shade of red that glints with gold.
Chandler defended his creation, Philip Marlowe, against accusations of homosexual tendencies. In fact, Marlowe’s chastity can be understood as a manifestation of the moral code of an English public schoolboy.
The Big Sleep
First published: 1939
Type of work: Novel
In a corrupt 1930’s Hollywood, Philip Marlowe, a hard-boiled detective, solves the mystery of the disappearance of his client’s son-in-law.
The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first novel, and some critics say that it is his best, In it, Chandler’s knightly hero, Philip Marlowe, fights vice, particularly materialism and sex, and champions the virtues of loyalty and friendship.
Everything in this unseasonably wet October in Southern California is damp and unnaturally green, a color that Chandler associates with corrupt female sexuality. Marlowe meets his client, General Sternwood, an elderly invalid, in a steamy greenhouse filled with plants “with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” Sternwood wants Marlowe to find out why he is being blackmailed for his daughter Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe soon discovers that the blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, is a pornographer who uses Carmen as a model. Carmen’s boyfriend, Owen Taylor, kills Geiger, and then gets killed himself.
Joe Brody, a small-time racketeer, steals some nude photos of Carmen and tries to blackmail the Sternwoods. Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s male lover, murders Brody in mistaken revenge for Geiger’s death. The blackmail case is resolved. Yet, out of a sense of loyalty for General Sternwood, Marlowe continues work on the case, now to solve the disappearance of Sternwood’s son-in-law, Rusty Regan, whom the old man loved.
Carmen has killed Rusty Regan, and her sister Vivian, Regan’s wife, knows this. Vivian’s loyalty to her father causes her to call on Eddie Mars, the most powerful mobster in Hollywood, to help her cover up her sister’s crime. In return, Mars expects to be able to blackmail Vivian out of much of her father’s fortune. Marlowe despises Mars because he values only money and power and will do anything to get it. Mars disguises the disappearance of Rusty Regan by holding his own wife, Mona, prisoner, then spreading the rumor that she ran off with Regan. In contrast, Mona is loyal to her husband and readily goes along with his plans because she loves him. Marlowe falls in love with her, as much for her moral beauty as her physical appearance.
Marlowe deduces that Carmen killed Regan; she is insane and will do anything to get sex. Carmen had propositioned Regan, her sister’s husband. When he refused her, she killed him. Out of the loyalty Marlowe feels for General Sternwood, he agrees to protect the general from the knowledge that his daughter killed his only friend. In return, Marlowe extracts a promise from Vivian to put Carmen in a mental hospital.
Marlowe has solved the crimes he was hired to investigate. Yet the two major criminals, Carmen and Eddie Mars, remain unpunished, so Marlowe is discouraged. All his effort and sacrifice did not make much progress against the evil and chaos in the world, General Sternwood, whom Marlowe worked so hard to protect, is old and nearly dead. Marlowe fell in love with Mona Mars, but in vain. Marlowe concludes by saying, “On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good.”
Farewell, My Lovely
First published: 1940
Type of work: Novel
Philip Marlowe helps a good-hearted thug find his old girlfriend among the demimonde of Los Angeles and Bay City (Santa Monica).
Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s second novel, is filled with murder and...
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