“Philip Marlowe has taken his place among characters of American myth, with Natty Bumppo, Captain Ahab, Huckleberry Finn, and Thomas Sutpen,” Apparently myth-deprived, I had to look up Sutpen—protagonist of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! But you knew that.
Marlowe was elevated to this status by Nasrullah Mambrol in a fascinating essay in Literary Theory and Criticism I’d missed until now. Time helps. It’s been sixty-five years since publication of Chandler’s last Marlowe novel, Playback.
Mambrol says Chandler believed detective fiction was a heroic form modern readers could believe in. Modern writers, too, since they continue to follow in his footsteps with greater or lesser success. In last year’s The Goodbye Coast (my review), author Joe Ide erases any doubt about whom he’s emulating by naming his protagonist Philip Marlowe.
Establishing a realistic hero in modern times wasn’t an easy decision. The American frontier had disappeared, removing the possibility of stories about the self-reliant loner pitted against the hostile forces of man, beast, and terrain. (I’m ignoring the nomadic Jack Reacher here.) Chandler’s heroes instead inhabit what he termed “the mean streets,” whether they emerge from a back alley or run past gilded mansions. Says Mambrol, he’s “more interested in exploring cruelty and viciousness among the very rich than among the people of the streets.” This to me also has many more dramatic possibilities. Characters at the very bottom of the social ladder rarely have much agency. It’s the people higher up in society who do have choices and who make bad ones that interest me.
Chandler believed strongly in the possibilities of redemption, though many of his contemporaries were shunning that aspect of heroic tradition. Except, Chandler believed, Hemingway. When a character in Farewell, My Lovely, asks Marlowe who Hemingway is, he says “A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”
Marlowe’s instinct is to help society’s victims. This makes him both interesting and vulnerable, and he shields himself with a tough-guy persona, but it’s a pose, in which he wisecracks his way through tricky situations. You’ll recognize his protective impulse in the symbolism deployed in The Big Sleep, where a stained glass panel shows a knight in armor rescuing a lady.
With all the forces rending the social fabric and leaving gaping holes for corruption to slip through, Marlowe lives and works by one principle: loyalty, especially client loyalty. In the age of chivalry, people believed in rigid established standards of behavior. In modern times—and one might say, increasingly so—there is no common understanding of “good behavior,” which is why Marlowe developed his own guiding principle.
In this much longer and fascinating essay, Mambrol credits Chandler, particularly The Long Goodbye, with marking the transition of the detective novel into “the realm of serious fiction.” Any crime novels you’ve read lately that make that leap?