What Chandler brought to all this was not just a foreign eye and sensibility, but, more, an old-fashioned, even outdated, moral sense that saw in L.A. a kind of Jacobean wasteland (it is a passing irony that the ruling family of Los Angeles, which owns the L.A. Times to this day and which bestowed on the city, among other things, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Academy Awards are often held, is called, by coincidence, the Chandlers). In his critical treatise “The SImple Art of Murder,” Chandler writes, as if he were a hard-boiled professor, “Murder is an act of infinite cruelty” and calls for it to be handled by a “complete man and a common man,” a “man of honor.” As Jonathan Lethem, who has smuggled part of Chandler into his own post-modern novels, said this summer at a Chandler celebration, the classic detective story presents us with a group of innocents from which we try to pick the guilty party; Chandler’s work, by contrast, presents us with a group of guilty souls from whom Marlowe tries (with increasing bitterness) to find an innocent. And, of course, whenever he does alight on someone on whom he can repose his hopes, that person turns out to be the most cunning disssembler of all.
Earlier this year Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, ran an article portraying Philip Marlowe as a “true American boddhisatva,” a “Zen peacemaker” seeing through the emptiness of surfaces–California a perfect image for what the Buddhists might call Maya, or Samsara–and, holding to no creed, venturing out into the dark to banish illusion. This might sound far-fetched, but it is certainly true that in the Zen temples of Kyoto, near which I live, Chandler is devoured as eagerly as if he were Suzuki (one American Zen student I know wrote his master’s thesis on Chandler’s vision); and if it is not how all of us see the shopworn detective, it is, surely, part of how Chandler saw him.
“Are you honest ?” a woman asks our hero at one point. “Painfully.” “I heard you levelled with the customers,” says a client at the beginning of his final story. “That’s why I stay poor.” Over and over we see Marlowe suffering from trying to remain upright in a city that’s all curves; and where a Hercule Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes, say, compel our admiration by brilliantly solving a puzzle of some kind, Marlowe wins our sympathy by singularly failing to do so. He’s always in the dark, at some level, getting the wrong end of the stick. The classic detective always gets his man; Marlowe usually fails even to get his woman. It’s a measure of the kind of fiction that Chandler was producing, in fact, that the mysteries he contemplates (how can someone possibly betray a friend–and what is the right course of action in a society that’s turned upside down ?) are the kind that can never be solved.
Thus the very people Marlowe looks down upon, from his dark aerie, invariably look down on him–the women because he has no money, the men because he has no clout. One stock scene in almost every Chandler story has someone asking the detective how much he earns, and, when he answers honestly ($25 a day, plus expenses), greeting him with an incredulity that borders on contempt. “You’re small-time,” a hoodlum says to Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. “You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you.” This strain of abuse continues till, by the final novel, Playback, he’s getting described as a “beat-up California peeper,” a ” dirty low-down detective,” a “small-town nobody.” “Well, what do you know ?” a woman says, as he insists on his honesty. “A dick with scruples.” The men he meets clobber him on the head, and the women hit him in ways that leave even more lasting injuries.
Psychologists at this point could talk of Chandler’s own bitterness at being consigned to the small-town nowhere of genre fiction, even as his letters and essays were showing him to be among the most thoughtful American writers of his time; part of his frustration, often, was that he was writing books for readers who had no time for his allusions to Anatole France and the Brothers Karamazov, even as the people who might have enjoyed his digressive reflections felt embarrassed about opening books that were said to be crime fiction. If Marlowe’s tragedy is to be a man of principle in a city where morality is a dirty word, Chandler’s was to be a figure of high culture (at least as he saw it) in a genre where fanciness was seen as a needless obstacle.
In his movie version of The Long Goodbye, in 1973–best savored if you assume it has little to do with Chandler–Robert Altman catches something of this sense of being out of time and place by having Elliott Gould, a Bogart of the ’70s, drive around post-Sixties L.A. in a sleek black roadster from the ’40s, almost pathetically dressed in a dark suit and tie even as the California girls around him are dancing around topless. “Where do you come from ?” a cop asks, and Marlowe answers, wearily, “A long time ago.” When Altman actually has Marlowe turn into a killer at the end, he is, in effect, killing off Marlowe himself, or at least that high heroic Marlowe that Chandler so defended. In the books, after all, on the next to last page of the last novel, Marlowe walks away from a $5000 payoff and, when pressed, suggests it be sent to the Police Relief Fund.
John Bayley, in his introduction to the stories, is one of those who disparages Chandler when he becomes serious and reflective, preferring instead the rat-a-tat-tat action of The Big Sleep. For those in search of vivid, fast-moving detective stories, rich with the smell of murder and honeysuckle, the early books are indeed the best; but for those of us who read Chandler not because of his plots but in spite of them (famously, when asked by film-makers shooting The Big Sleep who killed the chauffeur, Chandler cabled back, “NO IDEA”), his work is best when it leaves detective fiction behind altogether.
His culminating work, for this kind of reader, is, without question, The Long Goodbye, which takes the love-affair with Los Angeles to its last bitter gasp and, like the better kind of fiction, leaves us with more questions than it solves, not tidily satisfied at the book’s conclusion, but unsettled. There are almost no one-liners in the book, and very few similes; most of the narrative seems to be moving away from any mystery of the kind that can be resolved. Marlowe dares to make himself vulnerable, and even to lay himself on the line, for Terry Lennox, the smooth playboy who at some level represents everything Marlowe longs to be (with his nice manners and his background of heroism), and when Terry is found to have played him, the way everyone else does, there’s nowhere for him to turn. Whatever illusions he kept himself going with before are now exhausted, and the detective-story formula so clearly shown in the early stories is stretched to the point where it snaps. When Marlowe, at the end of the book, takes a woman into his bed, for almost the only time in his career, it feels, in the context of his loneliness, less a triumph than a gesture of defeat.
By the time of the throwaway coda that is his final novel, Playback, the spirit of the books has vanished. Most of the story’s characters are senior citizens, and instead of L.A., the detective tools around the affluent San Diego suburb of La Jolla, as Chandler did in his final years. Neither of them even seems to have the strength for any wit–“Down below, the ocean was getting a lapis lazuli blue that somehow failed to remind me of Ms. Vermilyea’s eyes.” As in the later stories, Chandler starts to turn a faintly therapeutic eye on his hero, and the fine balance of woundedness and conscience that distinguished him is gone. “Haven’t you ever been in love ?” a woman asks him, and then, “How can such a hard man be so gentle ?” When Marlowe actually finds a virgin in his final published story, 28 years old and kind, he turns away from her regretfully. “I’ve had too many women to deserve one like you.”
In his final novel, as it happens, a redhead (who reads The New Yorker, no less) invites Marlowe to come and escape with her to “one of those tall apartment houses along the ocean front in Rio” (where, we might imagine, Inspector Espinosa lives). Were Chandler to see how his character has been reborn in such a building (the dust-jacket of The Silence of the Rain describes Espinosa as blessed with “the mind of a philosopher, the heart of a romantic, and enough experience to realize that things are not always as they seem”), he might permit himself a smile. And were he to see how his books are being released with such fanfare–Professor Bayley acknowledging that his late wife Iris Murdoch was a Chandler aficionado–he might feel himself vindicated a little. Yet in his life he ended with a sense of failure. He’d used up the form he’d taken on, and there was nothing to put in its place. On the last page of the last novel, Marlowe seems to accept an offer of marriage, and for those of us who’ve followed him through a quarter of a century, we know the jig is up. A married Marlowe is about as resonant as a Hamlet with two kids and a dog.