Mould-breaking Philip Marlowe
SEVENTY-five years ago last week a revolution in crime-writing began when Knopf published The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s first novel. Reviews in 1939 were wary and unenthusiastic, however, and only gradually was it recognised that Chandler had pulled off a bold fusion of highbrow and lowbrow – much-applauded by big-name authors such as W.H. Auden, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, but also much-imitated by fellow chroniclers of murder.
What was so new? Almost everything in the first chapter, which introduces Philip Marlowe as he visits the Sternwood family mansion. Marlowe speaks to us. Whereas Holmes, Poirot, Maigret, Sam Spade are observed externally, Marlowe is the detective as autobiographer, starting three consecutive sentences in the first paragraph with “I” (ending with “I was calling on four mil- lion dollars”).
He is a private detective, yet not patrician. By showing him meeting his social betters, Chandler’s opening contrasts him as a man of the people (like a cop in this, but too nonconformist to be one) with the likes of Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, who don’t need the money. Even calling on a potential client – Holmes waits for them to call on him, Poirot has agreeable invitations to country houses – sets him apart.
He is single, and attracted and attractive to women. The opening’s flirtatious encounter with kittenish Carmen Sternwood differentiates him from his predecessors, who tend to be either sexless or married.
He is very literary. His first sentence – “It was about 11 o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills” – could be Scott Fitzgerald. And in The Big Sleep the initial nexus of crime is a bookshop.
He is a dandy, as fond of fine clothes as he is of fine prose: the book’s second sentence mentions his “powder-blue suit” and even describes his socks (“black wool A with dark blue clocks on them”).He should not be confused with Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, 47 when he played the 38year-old sleuth in Howard Hawks’s film version, tellingly wore a dark suit and made Marlowe more of a gruff 1930s tough guy (like Dashiell Hammett’s Spade, whom he had played in The Maltese Falcon).
Marlowe makes jokes. Witty crime fiction existed before, but those allowed to be droll usu- ally belonged to the leisure classes – noir’s earlier hardboiled heroes were merely blunt. Made to the Sternwoods’ butler, the wisecrack with which the first chapter ends (told Carmen’s name, Marlowe says “You ought to wean her. She looks old enough”) is poking fun at toffs instead of toffs poking fun.
Over the 75 years since The Big Sleep appeared, the Chandler formula has been continually mimicked by detective writers looking for more class and literary novelists (including Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis and Roberto Bolano) looking for a plot. Oddly, though, it’s recently fallen out of fashion: in today’s TV series and novels, the protagonists are either police detectives or eccentric geniuses like the modern-day Holmeses or Lisbeth Salander, not smart, self-employed regular guys. Only the humour is still there – from Sherlock to Saga Noren, today’s sleuths have to be funny. – Guardian News & Media
raymond Chandler, shown in a 1946 portrait, introduced a new type of crime thriller when he created private eye Philip Marlowe. — aP