Going down mean streets with Philip Marlowe and Raymond Chandler

Has there ever been a more haunting crime writer than Raymond Chandler? I was about to say “stylish”, but that hardly describes a writer so romantic, with a voice so distinct, as Chandler. Born on July 23, 1888, he died on March 26, 1959, but he is readable as ever. He will still put a spell on you if you open any of his books and walk down the mean streets with his detective, Philip Marlowe.

The world, according to Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler did not turn a blind eye to corruption. In his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, published in 1950, he wrote:

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 fingerman 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 practising; 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.

There are still places like that, if you look up newspapers from countries like India.

Philip Marlowe, man of honour

Raymond Chandler wrote about murder and corruption, but what redeemed his stories, made them such a pleasure to read, was his hero, Philip Marlowe.

Chandler understood the need to have a knightly hero to go down the mean streets and clean up the world. He understood we want the world to be a better place and not a lawless jungle.

The brave, romantic, wisecracking Philip Marlowe was the hero he had in mind when in his essay he wrote “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid”.

The detective must be “a man of honour”, he wrote, adding:

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… 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.

The Big Sleep

Philip Marlowe first appeared in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, published in 1939.  This is how the novel opens, with Marlowe writing about himself in the first person:

It was about eleven 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. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Marlowe solves the case, but the ending is elegiac in its melancholy. The detective doesn’t tell the old man, General Sternwood, how his son-in-law, Rusty Regan, died because it would kill him to know the truth. Marlowe concludes his story with the words:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.

The tone is signature Chandler, at once wistful, melancholy and elegiac. Marlowe’s last thought is about the good woman he was attracted to but didn’t meet again. That’s Marlowe, that’s Chandler, that’s what makes them so appealing.

Raymond Chandler sent Philip Marlowe down mean streets to solve cases that end as bittersweet adventures.

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