“How can a hard man be so gentle?” she asked wonderingly.
“If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive. If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”
Raymond Chandler, Playback
If you go to Wikipedia, the “detective fiction” entry will try to convince you that the genre has been around since ancient times. Like, Old Testament stuff. For most of us, though, we didn’t really care until Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes. Here we have a guy who was the smartest guy in the house. Once he had all the clues, he’d use his superior deductive skills to bring down the hammer of justice. Later, writers like Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and several other writers would take this basic template and start what would be known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. These stories were light-hearted whodunits that were delightful games for the readers to suss out. They also involved a lot of people just sitting around, chatting.
And then America instituted Prohibition and the era of the hard-boiled detective novel began.
It was an era that was brutal, sinful, and highly influential. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a self-admitted misanthrope, flying into violent rages in the name of justice. (I really couldn’t get into his adventures, since he came off as a huge asshole.). Dashiell Hammett’s detectives — the nameless Continental Op and Sam Spade, in particular — were more my speed. They were cold, calculating, and not above sowing misinformation to get the bad guys to turn against each other. With Hammett detectives, the process of gaining justice tended to chip away at one’s soul. (Red Harvest, a Continental Op story, would go on to influence both Japanese film and spaghetti Westerns.)
The absolute gold standard, though, was Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. If Hammer was the Punisher, and the Continental Op/Sam Spade were the Question, then Marlowe was its Batman: a detective who was driven by both a desire for the truth and a heart that beats with a hidden compassion.
Before writing this Spotlight, I read Playback, the final Marlowe novel, and reread The Big Sleep, the first and perhaps most famous. The rest I had read in the past at some point, but — with the exception of one — have since been mostly forgotten. While I remember that I enjoyed reading them, a lot of the stories do blend together. This is partly because Chandler’s stories are legendarily meandering. It’s a little stream-of-consciousness, only more grounded.
The Big Sleep remains a fantastic but flawed read. (I’ll explain later.) Playback, on the other hand, has a poor reputation. In a review of the graphic novel, Publisher’s Weekly surmised that “it’s possible that an unrelenting gloom was the real culprit.” Some fans refuse to accept the book as part of canon and that The Long Goodbye, the previous book, is the true ending. This is all childish folderol. Playback is much better than its reputation suggests.
Other writers have also written stories about Philip Marlowe, one of which was built from an unfinished Chandler novel. I admit that I’m a little intrigued by authorized sequel to The Big Sleep. However, I have no problem ignoring these books. The Marlowe novels are the short story collection and the seven novels written between 1939 and 1958.
Fair warning: while I’ll try to stay away from major spoilers (namely, the answers to the whodunits), there are going to be some minor spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
The Doomed Knight
Raymond Chandler lived a life that itself seemed ripped from the novels. Though born in Chicago and raised in Nebraska, he moved with his his family to London. He saw combat in the trenches of France during WWI and underwent flight training for the RAF. When he returned to the States (no living in LA), he fell in love and later married a woman 18 years his senior. He was, at a time, a Vice President of an oil company. Eventually he began writing for pulp fiction magazines, which led to his first novel, The Big Sleep. This led to a screenwriting job in Hollywood, where he worked with Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. Two of his screenplays would be nominated for Academy Awards. He fancied himself as something of a poet.
And yet, Chandler was a haunted man. His alcoholic father abandoned the family at a young age. A suicide by fellow write Richard Barham Middleton affected him deeply. Chandler himself became an alcoholic, which cost him several jobs. He suffered from clinical depression and treated to commit suicide. His mother didn’t approve of his marriage. Alfred Hitchcock hated him. After his wife died in 1954, Chandler went into a downward spiral that ended in his death in 1959.
I can’t help but think that Philip Marlowe was Chandler’s way of escaping into a character far more righteous than he was. Marlowe was a stubborn hardass, but always for the right reasons. If he couldn’t make things right, he would die trying. Yet he wouldn’t go away, despite a seeming death wish and villains on all sides gunning for him. Chandler makes the job of a private investigator, a job that among its duties means having to tail a woman to see if she’s cheating on her husband, seem like the world’s most noble profession.
The second paragraph of The Big Sleep encapsulates the character’s hard-coded nobility:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing 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. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
That books full of all sorts of swell knight allusions, such as a moment when Marlowe discovers that the knight on his chessboard is off position and he moves it back to the right place. Hey, Raymond, maybe you’ve got a poet’s soul in you after all.
Sure, Marlowe took payment for his services like any good P.I. Usually, though, it was to provide an alibi if someone asked him why he was helping someone who he had a gut feeling was worthy of being saved. Otherwise, the money just wounded his pride. Another reason for payment crosses straight into the mythical. In Payback, he strongly insists that his clients sign a receipt showing payment of services. It’s a comedic moment that the client finds ridiculous. It also had a religious connotation, as if you were signing your named into the Book of Life.
Chandler novels are full of sexy women, many of whom are described as having nice legs. A lot of these ladies, too seem to find Marlowe handsome. I don’t know how… Marlowe seems to have his face beat to mush in every single book. (By contrast, Hammett’s Continental Op was described as worn and out of shape.). Most interactions are teasing. Dames get really angrily flirty with Marlowe, and that’s generally as good as sex. Fans have held up The Long Goodbye as the book where Marlowe finally gets some. However, avid readers know that sex was never the end game. Marlowe gets laid twice in the next book, and both encounters end up feeling rather empty. Casual sex is a drain on his soul.
What really gets Marlowe excited, though, is some of that sweet, sweet justice.
With only bits and piece of the truth, Marlowe feels agitated. He needs to know the whole story, even it means spending cash that he desperately needs. Then he can exact justice. Sometimes that means letting a killer go free because he determines it was just. Sometimes it means walking away because the criminal is going to be assassinated by bad people anyway.
Hard-boiled detective fiction can’t help but feel like they exist in a fantasy reality. Did they ever reflect any real world setting? I hope so. Though some aspects come off like colorful caricatures, Chandler’s books are a window into a Los Angeles that was changing over the span of two decades. It’s an ever changing world where people of all backgrounds and social statuses mingle. (Fair warning: some of the language used in Chandler books are common for a hard-boiled tale, but can be unfortunately insensitive to modern ears.) Early on, there’s a sense of a generational struggle, as younger people no longer share the morality of their parents. In Payback, there’s an undercurrent of America paying for World War II, when couples are stuck in unhappy and abusive marriages that happened at war’s end. There are commentaries on the film industry and on how cops and robbers are basically two sides of the same coin.
Dead Men Are Heavier Than Broken Hearts
The Big Sleep is my favorite of all the books, but it’s admittedly maddening. People who’ve seen the movie have mentioned how unfocused it can be. You can blame the source material. The book loses some momentum when the main mystery — the one for which Marlowe was hired — is solved at roughly the halfway point. From then on, it shifts to what’s basically another story, with Marlowe’s excuse being, “Everyone thinks I should be looking for this one guy… so I guess I’ll do it.” Chandler repurposed the short stories he wrote in the pulp magazines. I haven’t read them, but I’m going to guess that the disconnect between part one and part two was a result of this inconvenient marriage.
Most notoriously, it seems like Chandler forgot to tell us how someone got murdered. When filming the movie, director Howard Hawks and writer William Faulkner noticed that Chandler hadn’t revealed who killed the chauffeur. When they asked him, he replied that he had no idea. This is especially apparent when you read the book. The chauffeur’s death is mentioned in the same chapter as the death of two other characters. The motives behind their deaths are explained in detail; the chauffeur’s death is not. Was Chandler going to reveal his killer in a later chapter but simply forgot? Or was this an intentional omission… maybe because some cases never get solved?
It almost doesn’t matter, though, because it’s easy to get lost in the writing. Befitting off a private eye’s point of view, Chandler writes in first person with short, quick sentences that catalogue the world around him. No nonsense, concise and to the point. It completely disarms you when he drops his trademark wordplay. There’s a great sequence where Marlowe describes his step-by-step press in how he’s breaking into a house. This includes using his hat as a glove and noticing the lack of a draw bolt. And then, “neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of the was dead.”
It’s amazing how Chandler’s dialogue comes across as effortless . It straddles the line between clever and eye-rolling, but almost always comes out looking great. I’ve read a lot of Chandler-like books in my life, ones that tried to get that cheeky first-person narration down, and it can get really bad. Like, theatrical version of Bladerunner bad. “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” could be a cheesy movie tagline, but in Chandler’s hands those words becomes so instantly iconic that they’re etched on his grave.
It’s also a little shocking how lurid the story gets. Unwittingly, while tracking a blackmailer, Marlowe stumbles into a pornography ring. Was pornography a topic that you’d bring up in polite company in 1939? I thought these detective stories were about Maltese treasures and bank robbers. Eventually, there’s a naked woman who’s wearing nothing but jade earrings. A homosexual man gets revenge on a dead lover. And then you get this fantastic description of a woman who’s basically Harley Quinn some 50 years ahead of her time:
Then her lips moved very slowly and carefully, as if they were artificial lips and had to be manipulated with springs.
I will be seeing that in my dreams tonight.
I’ve not seen many movies made from Chandler novels. I caught Lady In the Lake on TCM one day, because it had the odd distinction of being on the the few movies that was filmed from a first-person perspective. Spoiler alert: it’s not that good. And, of course, I’ve seen The Big Sleep, which is generally agreed to be the best of the Chandler movie adaptations. (Roger Ebert makes a good case for The Long Goodbye, but even in that review he says that The Big Sleep is “the greatest of the many films inspired by Marlowe”.) I like the movie well enough, and Bogart and Bacall are an attractive couple. However, if there’s a strike against it, it’s that it’s filmed in black-and-white.
Monochrome works for a lot of noir movies. It sorta doesn’t work for Chandler. That’s because it’s just so colorful. Take, for example, this vibrant scene from Playback:
I stopped and looked at her as well as I could see her in the freshly darkening evening. Down below, the ocean was getting a lapis lazuli blue that somehow failed to remind me of Miss Vermilyea’s eyes. A flock of gulls went south in a fairly compact mass but it wasn’t the kind of tight formation North Island is used to. The evening plane from L.A. came down the coast with its port and starboard lights showing, and then the winking light below the fuselage went on and it swung out to sea for a long lazy turn into Lindbergh Field.
Visually, I think that the ideal Chandler adaptation would look less like The Big Sleep and more like The Big Lebowski.
To Say Goodbye is to Die a Little
Chandler’s sixth novel, The Long Goodbye, is the one many, including Chandler himself, regard as the best. The book was written while his wife was dying and he’d turned to alcoholism to cope. It’s Chandler at his darkest. In most stories, Marlowe has a network for friends, both among law enforcement and the criminal element.
Here, Marlowe is operating with out a safety net. Marlowe helps out a fugitive whose wife has been found dead. He’s pressured by the police to give up key information. Marlowe refuses under the guise of friendship, but reality is more complicated: he doesn’t think things are adding up. The police don’t take kindly to his reticence… and in a very brutal chapter they beat the hell out of him, spit on him, and throw him in jail.
The blow traveled eight or ten inches, no more. It nearly took my head off. Bile seeped into my mouth. I tasted blood mixed with it. I heard nothing but a roaring in my head. He leaned over me still smiling, his left hand still on the desk. His voice seemed to come from a long way off.
And yet, Marlowe sticks to his principles despite facing almost certain defeat and running on nothing but instinct. Everyone around him is pressuring him to stop pursuing a case that no one hired him for, much of it under threat of death, but Marlowe keeps fighting until the truth reveals itself.
Because Marlowe is ever the doomed knight. Or, to tie it to my earlier analogy: he’s the hero the city deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So he’ll keep fighting the losing battles, taking punch after punch, until justice wins in the end.
Which is, honestly, why I like Playback. Contrary to what Publisher’s Weekly will have you believe, it’s not the darkest Marlowe book. (That’s The Long Goodbye by a long shot.) A lot of it is on par with some of his middle novels. It hangs together better, too, as the story is not quite so convoluted. This is probably because he adapted it from a screenplay, and not a handful of pulp fiction short stories that he smooshed together.
In fact, Playback ends on a hopeful note. Marlowe does suffer a bit from a martyr complex, and once again he’s set things right but with very little to show for it. Out of the blue, he gets a call… and he discovers that someone out there loves him. He still displays some stubborn pride; he hates it when anyone thinks they have to spend any money on him. But, for once, he comes to the appreciation that someone out there really thinks that he’s an alright guy after all.
I wish that Chandler had come to the same conclusion about himself when he finished Playback one year before his death.
It’s a bit of a shame that someone had to come along to write sequels after Raymond Chandler had passed… but hey, that’s why Playback is the last book I consider canon and everything after is just glorified fanfic.