(This essay originally appeared in Spinetingler Magazine, October 17, 2013)
In his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler deconstructs the classical idea of a mystery, replacing it with the form begun by Dashiell Hammett, who “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Chandler goes on to describe his idea of the perfect detective with these now famous words:
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”
A lot changes in sixty years; a lot changes in twenty, though conditions maybe not as quickly as attitudes. In his 1973 film based on Chandler’s the Long Goodbye, Robert Altman set out to do to Chandler what Chandler had done to the writers of the classic English-style mystery: to mark Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, as an anachronism. Referring to the character as “Rip van Marlowe,” he built the movie roughly around Chandler’s story while showing what he and screenwriter Leigh Brackett thought would happen had Marlowe existed into the 70s.
Altman and Brackett may have delighted in the sense of irony they sought to create, but the joke was on them. Chandler always knew Marlowe was an anachronism; references to it are all through his books. In the second paragraph of The Big Sleep, while Marlowe waits to meet General Sternwood, Chandler writes:
“…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 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.”
Later, puzzling over a chess problem while trying to ignore Carmen Sternwood lying naked in his bed:
“Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.”
The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first novel. If he knew even then Marlowe was an anachronism, when would Marlowe have fit in?
Any time. Any time at all.
What setting did Chandler envision for Marlowe? Cherry picking descriptions from the essay, it’s a world:
· “in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels.” Maybe not brothels, but there is a lot of now-legitimate money in this country and Canada originally made through illegal means. As Balzac said, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” In Chinatown, Noah Cross, as unpleasant a villain as ever filled the screen, says: “Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” The Kennedys and Bronfmans made fortunes during Prohibition. They’re unique only in that they maintained high enough profiles to pop to mind.
· “[where] the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket.” Or serial killer. Or has held young women hostage for years with no one any the wiser.
· “where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket.” Bootleg liquor may be gone, but now the opportunity exists to send a man to a for-profit prison in which the judge owns stock; mere hypocrisy is now passé.
· “where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony…” This has been true, and will continue to be true, as long as there are criminals who have criminal friends or associates.
· “…and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.” Any rape victim can attest to the first part. Avoiding jury duty may surpass tax fraud as the true national pastime. As for the judges, how much do you know about the names on the ballot? If there is even a ballot.
Who makes things right if the systems—both de jure and de facto—do not? It has to be someone with a knowledge of both, and only tangential involvement with either. Someone whose continued employment does not depend on whose feathers he doesn’t ruffle. An outsider.
Private investigators are outsiders by definition; otherwise he’d be a cop. (We’re talking about fictional detectives. The lives of actual private detectives resemble what we read about not at all, with rare exceptions.) Working as a PI and not as a cop has its plusses and minuses. A PI cannot compel anyone to talk to him, can be beaten up with impunity, and can be arrested for doing things a cop does almost without thought.
The good news—at least in fiction—is the PI gets to look into things a cop never touches. A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops close cases; PIs provide closure.
PI stories are also better suited for ambivalent endings. Cops are paid to catch bad guys. The PI can appreciate the bittersweet nature of all cases, balancing the satisfaction of solving the mystery with the knowledge that things can never be put right; the dead are still gone. The cop catches the killer and exacts a measure of justice; the PI may be brought in to clean up the mess that doesn’t quite meet the standard of illegality.
A writer willing to lay the groundwork can place the private investigator into any manner of criminal situations police may not deal with. Once in, the PI is like a tick on a dog: hell to get out. Ross Macdonald and Declan Hughes explore dirty family secrets. Travis McGee is, in most respects, an insurance investigator who earns a living collecting recovery fees, just not from insurance companies. Sam Spade is motivated by the death of his partner; the demise of Archer as a person interests him little. He solves the murder almost as an afterthought.
PI stories are somewhat out of favor right now. TV and movies ignore them. In written fiction, PIs have become something of a cult thing, with the exception of those writers who were already established. Have the stories outlived their time, much as Altman claimed Chandler’s hero had? More likely this is a low ebb; the tide will come in again. The public’s fear of terrorism has led to the rise of the apocalyptic thriller. Omnipotent government agencies send agents who make the James Bond of Ian Fleming look like Miss Marple out to thwart baddies who want to destroy “our way of life.” (Jack Bauer, anyone?) This is not a time for outsiders; it’s outsiders who caused all this trouble in the first place. No one wants to deal with the troublemaker who turns our protectors on their backs to show how much clay is in their feet.
Public perception of recent events may herald a change. Government interference into people’s lives—real and perceived—has not been well received on either the left or the right. People may become more sympathetic to the outsider who holds abuses up to the light when even a person of good conscience may not be able to do so from the inside, as is shown by the mixed reactions given to the actions of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning.
Who steps into the breach when people have had their fill of super-governmental agencies? Jack Bauer is not going to go private
It must be an outsider—almost by definition—but an outsider with an inviolable code. (Jack Reacher does not apply. Reacher doesn’t just hear a different drummer; he has his own marching band.) This outsider knows going in he won’t get everything he wants, and understands things will never get put right again; the ripples of what he’s investigating spread too far. His victory is in the struggle itself. He’s a man (or woman; the characteristics are not unique to men) who may need to appear to be bent but whose compass can be relied on to point him in the right direction.
In the beginning of The Little Sister, Chandler wrote in Marlowe’s voice:
“It was one of those clear, bright summer mornings we get in the early spring in California before the high fog sets in. The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land office business. And in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom.”
The man we’re discussing sees both the beauty and the corruption, understands they can never be separated, and does not allow his disdain for one detract from his appreciation of the other. The kind of man, who, “If there were enough like him, … the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”
When this man becomes irrelevant we’ll have bigger problems than deciding which book to read.