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Murder with Honor

Raymond Chandler's detective stories deserve the name of art


In 1951 Picture Post magazine wanted to do a story on Raymond Chandler and inquired with Chandler's Hollywood agent for information. What they were particularly interested in knowing was whether Philip Marlowe—Chandler's rugged, dashing private eye—had been modeled after the author himself. The agent passed the questions along to Chandler, a reclusive intellectual in his early 60s who lived in La Jolla with his ailing 80-year-old wife. In his reply to his agent, Chandler griped about the inanity of the Picture Post's question and then proceeded with whimsical delight to compare himself with Marlowe. He said that he was tough enough to break a Vienna roll with his bare hands and was the sort of writer who preferred to do his research in the apartments of tall blondes or to rifle through the desks of other writers after hours. “I do not regard myself as a dead shot," he wrote, “but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favorite weapon is a twenty-dollar bill." Chandler's point, of course, was that he and Marlowe were not very much alike, but the letter itself—with its wry humor and subtly sarcastic touch of social commentary in the final line—shows how closely linked the author and hero really were, for the voice of Chandler in the letter echoes the voice of Marlowe in the novels. 

Chandler once said that since he had been raised in England as a youth he had to learn American as though it were a foreign language, that he had to become consciously attuned to its slang and grammatical nuances. He developed this American voice—alive with feisty wit, apt colloquialisms, and the haphazard syntax of authentic speech—by writing detective fiction for pulp magazines in the 1930s. In time, the voice belonged as much to the private man as it did to his fictional hero.

The early short stories and novelettes (virtually all of which are in print) are often crudely conceived, with trite toughness and banal violence, but there are flashes of talent in the quick dialogue and shimmering descriptions of Los Angeles which Chandler handled so masterfully in the novels. But the most intriguing aspect of the early fiction is the way that Chandler's experimentations with first and third-person narrative led him to create two dissimilar kinds of protagonists in stories with two distinct tones. In the first-person stories Chandler used a witty, self-deprecating, and self-revealing narrator who is clearly the most honest man in a thoroughly corrupt world. In the third-person stories, on the other hand, he wrote in a stark objective style which shows the influence of Dashiell Hammett on his early work, and the protagonists in these stories are taciturn and coldly efficient tough-guys taken from the same mold as Hammett's Sam Spade and the Continental Op.

More than any other writer in America, Hammett adhered rigidly to the principles of objective narrative technique, and other writers of hard-boiled detective stories, with the urging of Joseph T. Shaw, editor of the famed Black Mask magazine, strove to emulate Hammett's crisp style. The idea of objective narrative was to place the narrator in the position of a neutral observer who sees and records the action but makes no attempt to interpret it or read the thoughts and emotions of the characters. The technique works marvelously for creating suspense, but, ultimately, it obfuscates the moral character of the hero. In Sam Spade's world one must play a game of endless deceit, but because Hammett refuses to look behind Spade's mask, refuses to certify the detective's morality. Spade himself seems, as Robert Edenhaum has suggested, “as unscrupulous and amoral as the 'enemy.'"

Several of Chandler's early protagonists—Pete Anglich of Pickup on Noon Street, Johnny DeRuse of Nevada Gas, Sam Delaguerra of Spanish Blood—have this same enigmatic quality. Delaguerra, for example, is a quick-tempered cop who is out to avenge the murder of an old friend. When he wants some information from Toribo, a Filipino hood, Delaguerra ties him to a bedpost with a wire coil that loops around the gunman's neck and starts interrogating:

Delaguerra jerked the wire taut against the brown throat. The yell was cut off as though by a switch. There was a strained anguished gurgle. Toribo's mouth drooled. 

Delaguerra...spoke to him gently, with a dry, very deadly gentleness. 

“You want to talk to me, spig. Maybe not right away, maybe not even soon. But after a while you want to talk to me."

 The brutality of Delaguerra creates an atmosphere charged with menace, and the objective third-person narrative permitted—in a sense, demanded—that Chandler avoid any explanations of the thoughts behind his protagonist's savage actions. But the detective-narrator of the first-person stories is not capable of Delaguerra's viciousness, for he is a hero whose unambiguous morality is essential to the meaning of the story.

Whether he is anonymous or called Dalmas or Carmady, the detective-narrator of Chandler's early fiction is the direct precursor of Marlowe (first called by that name in The Big Sleep). An ironic and irreverent observer of life, the private eye reveals to the reader the warmth and sensitivity, even the fear, which he hides behind his mask of cynicism; moreover, he is not above poking fun at himself as he plays the role of the tough detective. Caught in a gun-drawn stand-off, he admits to the reader that his bluff is “thinner than the gold on a weekend wedding hand," and he mocks himself as a clue-hungry sleuth grubbing about for “footmarks in the dust." What makes this private detective so appealing is his self-professed fallibility, his humanness in the pursuit of truth.

It is this first-person narrator who embodies the ideal of Chandler's tough detective. While the author had learned invaluable lessons from Hammett, he chose to go his own way, for he saw another possibility for the hard-boiled genre. “I thought," he would say years later, that perhaps I could go a bit further [than Hammett], be a bit more humane, get a bit more interested in people than in violent death." 

Chandler's detective-narrator sprang fully to life in his first novel. The Big Sleep (1939). To get material for this novel Chandler used two of his earlier stories and began a process which he later dubbed “cannibalization." Fusing separate characters, interweaving plots, and borrowing descriptive passages almost verbatim, he wrote a stunning novel which transcends the stories from which it was derived. A year later Chandler cannibalized three more stories to write Farewell, My Lovely, and he quickly followed with The High Window (1942) and The Lady in the Lake (1943). 

Unlike Sam Spade or Sam Delaguerra, Marlowe is a character with an intellectual and emotional life beneath tough-guy facade. He's read a little Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, he knows the difference between an azalea and a jacaranda, he has opinions about modern architecture, the rampant commercialism in California, and the cruelty of the gas chamber. He's a private eye who doesn't like to carry a gun, and the one time he is forced to kill a man, he breaks down after shooting and begins to “laugh like a loon" in fear and revulsion. Death is a part of his everyday world, but Marlowe never grows calloused, never loses his capacity for compassion. In the maelstrom of violence and corruption he clings steadfastly—sometimes desperately— to the belief that he, as a righteous man, can save someone else from the forces of evil. Chandler, writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, said that all art must have a “quality of redemption." He embodied that redemption in his own work in the unshakable rectitude of his hero—a “man of honor," a man who “must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." In short, Marlowe is a knight embarked on his quest in the mean streets of Los Angeles. It is this touch of unembarrassed romantic idealism in the character of the detective which Chandler brought to the tough-detective story.

 Marlowe not only shares Chandler's voice, but also reflects the author's image of himself as a man. Chandler wanted very much to be considered as a serious author, and his correspondence reveals his belief that he was one of the finest writers in America. But in spite of the qualified nods he received from W.H. Auden and Edmund Wilson, he felt that he never got the praise he deserved because of the categorical rejection of the detective novel from the realm of high art. Marlowe is a reflection of Chandler in that he too has been rejected by the Establishment. The people in Chandler's fictional world dismiss Marlowe out of hand because he works in a profession bloated with stupid and sleazy little men; yet he, of course, is one of the few men who cares about truth and justice. 

 Both the author and his private eye respond to this rejection with similar moods or poses ranging from good-natured self-effacement to professional self-confidence to bitter indignation and self-pity. In Chandler's first four novels there is a balance in Marlowe's voice as there seems to have been a balance in Chandler's own life. (This was the most prolific period of Chandler's career as a writer, and he had not yet begun to fret over his lack of critical recognition.) The dominant tone of Marlowe's voice in these early novels is comic. In Farewell, My Lovely, for example, Marlowe awakens in a stupor in a locked room and assesses his situation:

“Okay, Marlowe...You're a tough guy....You can take it. You've been sapped down twice, had your throat choked and been beaten half silly on the jaw with a gun barrel. You've been shot full of hop and kept under it until you're as crazy as two waltzing mice. And what does all that amount to? Routine. Now let's see you do something really tough, like putting your pants on."

 The effect of this and other such passages is that they make Marlowe's other moods of sentimentality and self-righteousness seem to be justifiable swings of emotion. When Marlowe steps on his high horse to tell the cops, “Until you guys own your own souls you don't own mine," we cheer his impetuosity. When he ignominiously turns away a giddy nymphomaniac, we understand his anger and frustration in trying to make her see that virtue is not a sign of emasculation. And when he toasts himself in the mirror and drinks to one of his fragile victories, we bask in the private knowledge that he has won, if only by keeping his honor intact.

From 1944 on, Chandler's life became increasingly unsettled, and these changes are reflected in his fiction. He began to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, and although he received Oscar nominations for the screenplays of Double Indemnity (which he wrote with Billy Wilder) and The Blue Dahlia, Chandler felt abused by the Hollywood system. Moreover, he became increasingly obsessed with the critical status of his fiction. His fifth novel, The Little Sister (1949) took him over three grueling years to write, and in this novel Chandler unleashed all his acerbity toward Hollywood. For Marlowe the world has become a “neon-lighted slum." Mired in loneliness and despair, the detective sits in his empty office and cries out, “Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again....Nobody has to like me I just want to get off this frozen star." The image of the frozen star perfectly characterizes Marlowe's world, for it is a place of crystalline beauty and brilliance, but there is no human warmth in its luster. In this novel one no longer questions if Marlowe will win or lose but whether he will have the strength to go on trying. 

Chandler was aware that the bitterness of Marlowe had flawed The Little Sister, and he struggled to eliminate it from The Long Goodbye (1953), his most ambitious novel. Still, he defended the changes in Marlowe, maintaining that his artistic intentions had shifted as he became more concerned with moral dilemmas rather than who cracked who on the head." Writing to his New York agent, Bernice Baumgarten, he said of The Long Goodbye, “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 tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish." When he sent the first draft of the novel to Baumgarten, she balked at the characterization of Marlowe, whom she felt had become Christlike and, indeed, much too sentimental. Her criticism was valid, and though Chandler reworked the novel, he was unable to recapture the tone of Marlowe's voice in the early novels. Yet, The Long Goodbye is in some ways Chandler's most captivating novel, for the detective is no longer a romantic hero seeking damsels to save but a beleaguered man of honor who tries to find friendship, only to become the dupe of the insurmountable forces of corruption that engulf his world. Several contemporary critics have suggested that in The Long Goodbye Chandler succeeded in his effort to bridge the gap between the detective novel and serious fiction. But those who delve into the magic and mystery of The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely know full well that a superb detective story—like any great romance—also deserves the name of art.