Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Farewell, My Lovely, his second novel with Philip Marlowe as the central character (the first was The Big Sleep, 1939), Chandler continued to elaborate on his idea of what the detective story should be. Along with other writers (most notably, Dashiell Hammett with his Continental Op and Sam Spade stories), Chandler was instrumental in moving the detective story away from a very formal and highly contrived exercise in logic and deduction to a more realistic, truthful format—removing it, in a sense, from the drawing room to the street.

Though mysteries in the classic style are still being written, the foremost practitioners of the modern detective story, such as Ross Macdonald and Robert Parker, are those who have adopted and adapted many of Chandler’s ideas and techniques. Their main characters are direct descendants of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

Chandler’s detective is a man of action (as opposed to the stereotypical ratiocinative detectives of the classic mystery stories), a man who moves in a world that reeks with the authentic flavor of life, a world in which people who commit crimes do not leave convenient clues lying about and whose motivations for committing these crimes are often tangled and uncertain. Marlowe possesses a heightened awareness of self, a realization that some of the motives that propel people to crime are the same ones that prompt him to seek out and make sense of the truth. Marlowe (and through him, Chandler) knows that people of all stripes, from whatever strata of society or profession, are capable of killing, corrupting, and being corrupted, and that in many instances, all of this is done in exchange for very little.

The difference between the classic mystery and the detective novel as pioneered by Chandler is perfectly summed up in a scene near the end of Farewell, My Lovely. Anne Riordan teases Marlowe by suggesting that he should have given a party, with the suspects and police in attendance, where he, at the head of the table, would then spin out the details of the case in a phony accent. Marlowe says, “It’s not that kind of story. It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood.”