Monday, February 10, 2014

Raymond Chandler: It's About the Driver, not the Drive


[Photo: Bogart as "Marlowe" w/ Lauren Bacall]
Everyone in the world recognizes the private eye Philip Marlowe, no matter whose face appears under that hat. In movies he's been portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, and imitated or parodied by Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin, Bob Hoskins, and Peter Falk. 

But the real thing is so much better than the imitations, that reading these novels has felt like a revelation -- to meet Marlowe again for the first time.

If we were detectives trying to figure out Philip Marlowe, we'd have little to go on. I dimly recall that he mentioned to someone else that he'd learned to shoot in "the war" (in 1938, the year of The Big Sleep, that would be World War I, I guess). Also, he may have once been a police detective. He has read and despised detective fiction - especially a 30s vintage detective named Philo Vance (and he once gives that as his name to a nosy cop). We hear what others remark about him - a couple of women think he's good-looking, one man says he's "well-built" for an action-packed job.

More remarkable is what's missing in our picture of his life. He keeps a mostly empty office in a mostly empty office building. We know that he has three file cabinets, mostly empty. We know what he keeps in his desk drawers (a gun, a bottle of Scotch). His apartment is empty most of the time, judging from how many nights he's working in these stories.

We also know that he doesn't like to talk or think about his own past. At least, he never bothers us with it when he tells us his stories. Family? Home town? Education? Old friends? Beliefs about politics, about religion? He keeps tight-lipped about himself.

Marlowe fills his stories instead with sharp, funny details about the people he meets and their environments. What he sees is what he tells us; his finding out about others makes up the plot of each novel.

Marlowe's creator Raymond Chandler drives Marlowe like a car through the pages of these novels. By the second page of any of these books, Marlowe has taken a turn onto a road that looks pleasant enough. He's to get a few hundred dollars for a simple job. There's a lead to the next turn to take, and always a detour - Marlowe gets interested in some side street that takes him way off-course. The fun of each plot is finding out how the detour leads back to the main route he started on. And Marlowe never shifts into reverse - he's always going forward, though he does park for a page in every couple of chapters to review the map of where he's been, to figure out where to go next. Though I did have trouble remembering from one chapter to the next where we'd been in The Big Sleep, the plots are a good ride. But the fun is in the vehicle.

One time, Marlowe makes an observation about himself, and, as usual, he's right on the mark. He tells a cop, "I hate people hard, but I don't hate them very long" (The Lady in the Lake, ch. 36). The other way to say it is, he sees others so clearly that he understands them, even if he doesn't sympathize. When he sees something he likes in a character, that's when he goes off the track: he risks his time, his job, and his neck for characters in each of these novels, and it's usually not his client. In Lady, it's the sad sack caretaker up at the lake; in Window, it's the hapless private detective who tries to follow Marlowe.

So Marlowe is a kind of saint who chooses the hard path and self-sacrifice without reward, to help someone else. He tells tactical lies, but his insistence on knowing and speaking the truth gets him into deep trouble. Seeing the world through his eyes makes reading these dark and violent novels an uplifting experience. And did I say, funny?
    Favorite bits of LADY IN THE LAKE:
  • The last three pages of chapter six are especially rich in character, funny as Marlowe's wit deflects Bill Chess's violent temper, beautiful as Marlowe's description evokes a peaceful scene, and deliciously shocking as he becomes slowly aware of something under the surface of the scene.
  • Good cop, bad cop - ch. 27 - Marlowe witnesses a dishonest cop chewing out a more dishonest cop for corruption, and then the more honest one defends the other to Marlowe. Layers of morality, here, and another example of someone hating not for long.
  • Interesting to me that this novel, written as a contemporary novel in 1943, mentions the world war three times only: Chess was injured in the war; some soldiers sit in a restaurant; one corrupt cop says it doesn't matter what he does, because he's going overseas in two weeks. That's all -- as if it had little impact on life in LA at the time.
  • A little post-modern moment: Chandler's detective Marlowe speaks of a scene he's in as the kind of scene he hates to read in detective novels (ch. 31).

- July 5, 2005
[This article is re-posted from my personal web site SmootPage.] 

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