March 26, 2009 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Raymond Chandler, the most important American detective fiction writer of the twentieth century. Chandler is responsible for developing an image of the hard-boiled private eye that dominated American crime fiction and film from the 1930s onwards. Los Angeles as he described it became the city of twentieth-century nightmares, an example of what happens when cities grow too far from the human scale and too far from humane values.
Chandler’s literary vision as we know it is essentially modernistic, but Chandler himself was from another age and another culture. He was born in 1888 in Chicago but his ties with England, including an enduring sense of class and cultural value, were strong. His mother Florence was Irish with family in London and she moved there with her son via Waterford in the late 1890s, by which time Chandler’s father had disappeared. It seems Chandler made the first of many return crossings of the Atlantic when he was just a baby, sailing back to the United States in 1890 aboard the SS Servia, the first passenger ship to be lit with electric lights.
As a writer too, Chandler was a man out of place and out of time. His sensibilities were Edwardian and self-consciously English. As a young man in London his writing was sentimental, romantic and overdone. Much later he said that the poetry he wrote at the time was no better than ‘grade B Georgian,’ an admission that appears doubly harsh when one understands, as Chandler must have, that even ‘grade A’ Georgian poetry was considered old-fashioned and irrelevant by many critics in 1912.
This clash of epochs is part of Chandler’s appeal. In his books the tough, modern world of twentieth century Los Angeles is channeled through the much older worldview of Philip Marlowe, a detective who laments the upending of a romantic code of honour and courtly love. Chandler’s stories are full of references to Arthurian legend. General Sternwood, who appears in the first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) has sometimes been described as a Fisher King, weakened and living on heat ‘like a spider.’ He looks out from his hothouse on a wasteland of spent oilfields.
Marlowe is an Arthurian knight in a leaky convertible and General Sternwood chooses him restore order to his kingdom. At the beginning of the novel Marlowe looks up at the stained glass window above the door of the Sternwood mansion, where a knight is rescuing a naked woman who is tied to a tree, and decides that if he lived in the house he would have to get up there and do it himself. When he discovers Carmen Sternwood naked, drugged and insensible in the house of a pornographer he tries to help her. But it is understood from the beginning of the book that there is no hope of redemption for anyone involved. Later Marlowe makes a wrong move in a chess problem and declares: ‘It wasn’t a game for knights’.
In The Big Sleep the modern world has abandoned the knightly code, but Chandler’s inversion of the Arthurian myths is most explicit in The Lady in the Lake (1943). Marlowe’s experience at the lakeside is a gruesome parody of the story in which Sir Bedivere casts Excalibur into the lake. Even in the novel’s suggestive title all mystery is stripped away: this lady is ‘in’ not ‘of’ the lake. Here is Tennyson’s retelling in his poem ‘Morte D’Arthur’ of what happens when Bedivere finally carries out the king’s wish:
… an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere. (lines 144-147)
The lady in Chandler’s lake is a decomposing corpse: “The thing rolled over once more and an arm flapped up barely above the skin of the water and the arm ended in a bloated hand that was the hand of a freak.”
This bleak reworking reflects Marlowe’s understanding that the moral code he clings to has been swept away. More than that, its antithesis, a selfish code of greed and superficiality, has taken its place.
In the early novels what makes Marlowe attractive is his distance from the world of routine and salaried work. He is an ordinary man, just like most of Chandler’s original readership, but he is tough and witty and ‘hell with the women’. His knowing and dismissive superiority, enhanced by the first-person narrative, offers those readers a chance to share in a ‘secret knowledge’ about the world and its corruption. Even if they cannot act upon it, Marlowe is the kind of man they might hope to be in their dreams.
But despite his sympathy for the plight of ‘working stiffs’ Marlowe doesn’t really approve of popular culture. What he is most afraid of is not being beaten up or threatened with guns, but losing his sense of detached superiority. Marlowe wants to remain one of the chosen knights even though he knows those days are long gone. In The Long Good-Bye (1953) the most ambitious of the seven completed novels, Marlowe is surprised to discover that Linda Loring’s chauffeur is a fan of ‘The Wasteland’, a sign that Eliot’s elite cultural value has been drained away; Marlowe’s own superiority is exposed as an outdated, anachronistic sham.
Chandler’s version of the modern city is in some ways not very different from T.S. Eliot’s. But where Eliot envisaged an ancient culture in the process of breaking apart, in Chandler the dissolution is complete. Eliot’s London commuters are transposed into ‘tired men [who] cannot afford ideals’ and the portentous chimes of St Mary Woolnoth become, in Farewell, My Lovely (1940), the cries of a hot-dog seller instructing passing tourists to ‘Get hungry, folks’. The fragments Marlowe shores against his ruin are a hat, a coat, and a gun.
Chandler’s chronic drinking made him a difficult person to like in old age. Many of his closest friendships had been conducted by letter; in person he was often irascible and bad tempered and he could as easily spoil a social gathering as brighten it. It is difficult to overstate Chandler’s importance for American crime fiction since the 1930s. His influence on American letters, on film, television, and popular culture in general is so pervasive it often goes unnoticed. Yet he died more or less alone, a bookish, unhappy Edwardian marooned on the California coast.