Friday, December 16, 2011

What would Philip Marlowe do?

I wrote a few weeks ago that I'd chosen classic American crime fiction for my European trip. Here are three bits from The Big Sleep that reveal an interesting side to Philip Marlowe's nobility of spirit:
“Just lie quiet and hold your breath. Hold it until you can’t hold it any longer and then tell yourself that you have to breathe, that you’re black in the face, that your eyeballs are popping out, and that you’re going to breathe right now, but that you’re sitting strapped in the chair in the clean little gas chamber up in San Quentin and when you take that breath you’re fighting with all your soul not to take it, it won’t be air you’ll get, it will be cyanide fumes. And that’s what they call humane execution in our state now.”
*
“`That kind of thinking is police business, Marlowe. If Geiger’s death had been reported last night, the books could never have been moved from the store to Brody’s apartment. The kid wouldn’t have been led to Brody and wouldn’t have killed him. Say Brody was living on borrowed time. His kind usually are. But a life is a life.'

“`Right,' I said. `Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.'”
*
“Carol Lundgren, the boy killer with the limited vocabulary, was out of circulation for a long, long time, even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid. They wouldn’t, because he would take a plea and save the county money. They all do when they don’t have the price of a big lawyer.”
I wonder what law-and-order conservatives thought of Chandler then, and what they'd think of him now.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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14 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Chandler drops a few similar lines into his essay, THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER. To wit:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, 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, 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.

It used to surprise me how many crime fiction writers were to the left of center politically, and how it showed in small ways in their writing. Now it makes perfect sense. Someone who writes too much from a "good guys-bad guys" perspective will be inclined to write two-dimensional characters. A writer who sees the criminal as other than wholly evil and the "good guys" as flawed and venal creates a far more convincing world.

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Interesting. I might have to re-read Chandler again.

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I remember that passage. I once read the rough generalization that crime writers were politically to the left, thriller writers to the right. (I'm not sure how true that is, but don't blame me. I didn't say it.)

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, the idea and images of Chandler are so firmly planted in our minds from the movies and thanks to their deep penetration of popular culture that sometimes we forget what he really wrote ... or else we feel we know him even though we haven't read him. His books are full of little and not so little surprises.

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I'm a law-and-order conservative and Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite writers.

Given time, I can pick out a dozen comments in the novels that make Marlowe sound like a conservative.

Marlowe, like Chandler, was a complex character and he is not easy to slot.

Paul

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I have no doubt about Chandler's complexity as a man and a writer. Not many people would identify him as a man of the left, the way they might with, say, Hammett. And yet he did have his characters utter sentiments that someone identified today as on the left might find congenial.

At the same, I'd call Marlowe a romatic rather than a leftist. The bit from "The Simple Art of Murder" about witnesses disappearing, for example, reminds me of nothing so much as current police efforts in Philadelphia to combat the no-snitch culture. And that's a fine law-and-order cause.

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

My point is that one can also find in the novels sentiments that someone identified today on the right might find congenial.

Marlowe (Chandler) was critical of nearly all institutions, which included political parties of all stripes.

Paul

December 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I'd say Chandler was skeptioal of just about everything.

And someone on the right might well support a pro-law-enforcement effort, auch as the anti-No Snitch program. And the targets in the "Simple Art of Murder" passage are not especially partisan.

December 16, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Here's a little clip from a BBC doc on Dulwich School from a few years back:

...And they eventually became hugely successful bestsellers throughout the English-speaking world. Even more importantly, Wodehouse and Chandler were profoundly influenced by their time and their teachers at Dulwich.
They found personal happiness and companionship, their memories of the place were fond and warm, and they would remain devotedly loyal to it for the rest of their lives. But in addition, Wodehouse and Chandler both excelled at Greek and Latin, and were influenced by Dulwich's then-legendary headmaster, Arthur Herman Gilkes, who seems to deserve the credit for teaching them to write the superb English prose of which each would become a master, and which would win for them the admiration of Evelyn Waugh.


It might seem impossible to depict the perpetual sunshine of Blandings Castle and the mean streets of Los Angeles in the same words and style and idiom. But thanks to their formative years at Dulwich, Chandler and Wodehouse played with the English language in ways that were sometimes very alike, especially in their use of metaphors and similes which were vivid and unexpected, yet also completely apt and utterly unforgettable.

Early in Farewell My Lovely, for example, Chandler introduces the sinister character of Moose Malloy: "a big man, but not more than six feet five inches tall, and not wider than a beer truck". And later comes the great line: "he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake".

Wodehouse's writing abounds with similar flights of literary fancy: he once described the loud and raucous laughter of a young and intimidating woman as resembling the noise made by a troop of cavalry crossing a tin bridge, and on another occasion he likened the unhappy demeanour of one of Bertie Wooster's aunts to someone "who, picking daisies on the railway, had just caught the down express in the small of the back".

Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster were evoked on screen
Indeed, on occasions, their word-play is so similar in its memorable inventiveness that it's almost indistinguishable. Consider, by way of illustration, this wonderful image: "she was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window".

This could certainly be Raymond Chandler: he wrote a great deal about blondes, especially powerful, sinister, sexy blonds, and the violent simile is certainly in keeping with his cynical, disenchanted view of the world, in which religious morality has no place and churches serve no purpose. But it could equally be PG Wodehouse: his work is also full of aggressive, assertive and athletic women with fair hair, and there are vicars and bishops aplenty in his books, not surprisingly, since four of his uncles were Church of England clergymen.

December 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think associating Chandler's blondes with Wodehouse's is a stretch. I've read no Wodehouse character like Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep, for example. But there's something to be said for the similarity of their similes. I had never thought of that before, and I've read a fair amount of both authors.

December 17, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

" "she was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window".

This could certainly be Raymond Chandler: "

Actually, it was Chandler, in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. (A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.)

December 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It was Chandler, of course. "Could certainly be ... " was an odd way of putting it, though the larger point about Chandler and Wodehouse's shared affinity for similes is well taken.

December 18, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I have a little pet theory that the deadlier-than-the-male blond dames of period crime fiction (a woman's hair color not being so immediate a signifier of her character in today's crime fiction) were a response/rebuttal to the pure, chaste, angelic, ethereal blondes that liberally peppered the romance fiction (women's fiction, written by women) of the same period.

I've read a boatload of period romance fiction over the past year and time and again, a Blondie is the Goody-Two-Shoes who keeps her home in order and (if single) her virginity intact until she brings the man to heel; until Her Mr. Right realizes that his infatuation with that luscious brunette or that delectable redhead is of the passing fancy variety. If hubby has an affair with one of these 2 types, she writhes in agony but never confronts him and takes him back when he (inevitably) realizes the errors of his ways.

I suspect that readers of crime fiction would have been well-aware of this stereotype and would have reacted, at least initially, to the blonde-as-bad-girl with a "say it can't be so," thus making early encounters with blonde femmes fatales startling rather than expected. More research is needed...

Back to the main topic... Chandler had conservative tastes but was neither left-leaning, nor right-leaning politically. He was as close to being apolitical as a person can be, I think. However, as some of his letters reveal, he did have a strong sense of justice, a word that today has been distorted and tortured beyond recognition as Chandler would have understood it.

December 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wagner used the blonde-brunette dichotomy in "Tannhauser," where I think the ethereal blonde lady was named Elizabeth, as it happens.

You're probably right about Chandler. I'd suggest further that the ability of readers of different political stripes to find traces sympathetic to their views is a symptom both of Chandler's sense of justice and of readers' reverence for his writing.

December 19, 2011  

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