Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: In search of Dignity


When I read some of the crime fiction from America or when I watch Hollywood action movies with macho men (there are no other kind) what strikes me is how much a lot of them borrow from Raymond Chandler’s time. The wittiness, the ability to throw one liners at the drop of a hat, taking a punch on the chin without flinching, imperiousness to the wiles of women and much more come from detectives created by  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The glorious American pulp fiction years provide the archetype for most of the American detectives of the modern era, both in print and on screen.

One of the important aspects spoken about Raymond Chandler’s books is the style of the author. Chandler’s language was tough, he could throw one liners the same way Mike Tyson could throw a knockout punch, the dialog was witty and hard, the characters colorful and the plot convoluted. You did not read Chandler for the plot. (Indeed his plots sometime have holes which even Chandler himself couldn’t fill. When asked as to who killed the driver in ‘The Big Sleep’, Chandler is supposed to have remarked that he had no clue. Or something to that effect.) You read Chandler for his style the first time but when you keep returning back to his books, the realization dawns that beyond the style lies Chandler’s moral compass, which ensures the story moves in the right direction. It is this moral center which according to me has given immortality to Chandler’s best books. If there is one theme which seem to hold together the best novels of Chandler: ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘Farewell My Lovely’ and ‘The High Window’, it is the search for dignity. In all these novels, Marlowe is trying his best to restore the sense of dignity of his client, even if this process hurts him personally sometimes.

Philip Marlowe’s world is populated with people across the class divide. In his world exists the millionaire who is fond of his once gun-running son-in-law, a rich lady who doesn’t care for anyone, and chorus girls who marry millionaires or mobsters. In this world idle young men blackmail the wealthy women; gangsters tolerate the infidelity of their wives, gunmen don’t think twice before pulling the trigger and robbers who cannot forget their childhood sweethearts.  In this world, where the rich and the poor mingle closely, where the saint and the sinner co-exist, where killing is as common as sacrificing life to save a loved one, Marlowe helps people find their dignity and in the process finds meaning for his own existence. Philip Marlowe is basically a decent man living in a murky world and trying to keep his decency intact.

In Philip Marlowe’s world living a life of dignity is not an easy option. In ‘The Big Sleep’ Marlowe encounters one such person: a small time crook who comes to Marlowe and asks for money in exchange of information. Money which will enable him to escape from that city along with his girl. Unfortunately, a killer traps him and in order to not reveal his girlfriend’s whereabouts the small time crook consumes cyanide and dies. In him Marlowe sees a hero, a man who wouldn’t betray his loved one.

“Well you fooled him, Harry,” I said out loud, in a voice that sounded queer to me. “You lied to him and you drank your cyanide like a gentleman. You died like a poisoned rat, Harry, but you are no rat to me.” (The Big Sleep)

In ‘The Long Goodbye’ Marlowe gets himself involved in the affairs of a man because everyone has given up on him. He someone cannot see a man being treated with indignity and tries his best to help him out.

“I’m supposed to be tough but there was something about the guy that got me. I didn’t know what it was. The white hair and the scarred face and the clear voice and the politeness. Maybe that was enough. There was no reason why I should ever see him again. He was just a lost dog, like the girl said.” (The Long Goodbye)

‘The Lost Dog’ is exactly why Marlowe sees him again.

In ‘The Big Sleep’ Marlowe understands that the invalid General is basically a decent man, a man who wants to maintain his dignity but has two daughters who run wild. Marlowe goes far beyond his call of duty to serve the General. To Marlowe he becomes more than just a client. Marlowe tries his best to see that the General’s pride is not broken. Not from the external world but from his own blood.

“I do all this for twenty five bucks a day – and maybe just a little to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood, in the thought that his blood is not poison, and that although his two little girls are a trifle wild, as many nice girls are these days, they are not perverts or killers.” (The Big Sleep)

In this unequal world it is women who are looking for a dignified existence more than the men and they have a tougher time finding it. Marlowe’s world is filled with all types of women: gangster molls, chorus girls marrying for money, young girls high on drugs, girls who are inveterate gamblers and much more. Chandler looks beyond these stereotypes and takes us into this seemingly sordid world and opens our eyes to the inherent dignity and strength of many of these women. In ‘High Window’ when he confronts the wife of his client, who is now hiding in a gangster’s place, the following dialog ensures:

 “She looked at me lazily. “Mister, don’t think I didn’t pay for that mistake.” She lit another cigarette. “But a girl has to live. And it isn’t always as easy as it looks. And so a girl can make a mistake, marry the wrong guy and the wrong family, looking for something that isn’t there. Security, or whatever.”

“But not needing any love to do it,” I said.

“I don’t want to be too cynical, Marlowe. But you’d be surprised how many girls marry to find a home, especially girls whose arm muscles are all tired out fighting off the kind of optimists that come into these gin and glitter joints” (The High Window)

The woman in ‘Farewell My Lovely’ kills a couple of men and was probably responsible for betraying the man who loved her and sending him to jail. Even in her, Marlowe sees a woman in the end trying her best to atone for her sins by ensuring the one person who really loved her is not affected.

 “I am not saying she was a saint or even a halfway nice girl. Not ever. She wouldn’t kill herself until she was cornered. But what she did and the way she did it, kept her from coming back here for trial. Think that over. And who would be the trial hurt most? Who would be the least able to bear it? And win, lose or draw, who would pay the biggest price for the show? An old man who loved not wisely, but too well”

Randall said sharply, “That’s just sentimental.”

“Sure. It sounded like that when I said it. Probably all a mistake anyway.” (Farewell My Lovely)

The transformation of women in Chandler’s novels is something on which we can write a treatise on. Chandler many a times introduces women in his own unique way, almost insulting them. Later they slowly develop a character of their own and they are not what they seem when you stared at them the first time.

“She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmen’s lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative but could be persuaded to be nice” (The Big Sleep)

“I wouldn’t say the face was lovely and unspoiled, I’m not that good at faces. But it was pretty. People have been nice to that face, or nice enough for their circle. Yet it was a very ordinary face and its prettiness was strictly assembly line. You could see a dozen faces like it on a city block in the noon hour” (Farewell My Lovely)

Here is a woman who had married a mobster boss. This is how Marlowe sees her in the beginning.

“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. Her mouth was too wide, her eyes were too blue, her makeup was too vivid, the thin arch of her eyebrows was almost fantastic in its curve and spread, and the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings.

She wore white duck slacks, blue and white open toed sandals over bare feet and crimson lake toenails, a white silk blouse and a necklace of green stones that were not square cut emeralds. Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby.” (The High Window)

Towards the end of the novel, she has nothing but disdain for her husband and she has enough strength of character to reject him.

“You work out with the johns,” he snapped. “Call it a lover’s quarrel. Call it anything you like.”

“Perhaps,” she said, “when he was drunk he looked a little like you. Perhaps that was the motive.”

“You’ll go through with it, all right. You won’t have any choice. You will get off easily enough. Christ, I know that. With your looks. But you’ll go through with it angel. Your fingerprints are on that gun.”

She got to her feet slowly, still with the hand to her jaw.

Then she smiled. “I knew he was dead,” she said. “That is my key in the door. I’m quite willing to go downtown and say I shot him. But don’t lay your smooth white paw on me again – if you want my story. Yes, I am quite willing to go to the cops. I’ll feel a lot safer with them than I feel with you.” (The Big Sleep)

In the murky world of Marlowe, police are inevitable. Chandler maintains a fine balance between making cops idealistic and making them completely corrupt. Marlowe comes across cops of various kinds. The ones who believe in strong arm tactics and those who try to do an unenviable job to the best of their abilities.

“The homicide skipper that year was Captain Gregarious, a type of copper that is getting rarer but no longer extinct, the kind that solves crimes with the bright light, the soft sap, the kick to the kidneys, the knee to the groin, the fist to the solar plexus, the night stick to the base of the spine” (The Long Goodbye)

“I thought of cops, tough cops that could be greased and yet were not by any means all bad, like Hemingway. Fat prosperous cops with Chamber of Commerce voices, like Chief Wax. Slim, smart and deadly cops like Randall, who for all their smartness and deadliness were not free to do a clean job in a clean way. I thought of old goats like Nulty, who had given up trying.” (Farewell My Lovely)

Just like Marlowe, most of the policemen have a sense of dignity and try their best to help solve the cases. Marlowe on one hand doesn’t bow to the cops and stands up to them whenever required. At the same time he knows that the society cannot function without them. They are inevitable in his world.

“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.” (The Long Goodbye)

Marlowe’s scruples are what keep him going and that is one reason that he has stayed alive in fiction longer than many detectives. More than the wittiness it is this sense of decency which defines Marlowe.

“Now you offer me fifteen grand. With fifteen grand I could own a home and a new car and four suits of clothes. What are you offering it to me for? Can I go on being a son of a bitch, or do I have to become a gentleman, like that lush that passed out in his car the other night?” (The Big Sleep)

“I am forty two years old. I’m spoiled by independence. You are spoiled a little – not too much – by money” (The Long Goodbye)

In his world, Marlowe has to resort to some underhand dealing to get to the truth. Rather than gloat over these unavoidable means, Marlowe is critical of himself and his methods.

“A lovely old woman. I liked being with her. I liked getting her drunk for my own sordid purposes. I was a swell guy. I enjoyed being me. You find almost anything under your hand in my business, but I was beginning to be a little sick at my stomach.” (Farewell My Lovely)

Here is Marlowe, kissing a client and her timid husband walks into the room.

“The door opened and Mr.Grayle stepped quietly into the room. I was holding her and didn’t have a chance to let go. I lifted my face and looked at him. I felt as cold as Finnegan’s feet, the day they buried him.”

It is with the same prism that he observes the world.

“Jules Amthor, Psychic Consultant. Consultations by Appointment Only. Give him enough time and pay him enough money and he’ll  cure everything from a jaded husband to a grasshopper plague. He would be an expert in frustrated love affairs, woman who slept alone and didn’t like it, wandering boys and girls who didn’t write home, sell the property now or hold it for another year, will this part hurt me in public or make me seem more versatile. Men would sneak in on him too, big strong guys that roared like lions around their offices and were all cold mush under their vests. But mostly it would be women, fat women who panted and thin women who burned, old women that dreamed and young women who thought they might have Elecktra complexes, women of all sizes, shapes and ages, but one thing in common – money” (Farewell My Lovely)

“The stores along Hollywood Boulevard were already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk, and the daily papers were beginning to scream how terrible it would be if you didn’t get your Christmas shopping done early. It would be terrible anyway: it always is.” (The Long Goodbye)

In all these novels, Philip Marlowe never fights big battles. He fights with big guys alright but he fights for small victories. Unlike the current macho heroes, he doesn’t destroy gambling empires or evil corporations single-handed. In Marlowe’s world, the gangsters continue running their gambling dens, the politicians continue hobnobbing with the gang-lords, police protect the mob. Marlowe doesn’t try to change the society. His is a deeper understanding of the society. He knows the limits of change that the society can tolerate and also knows that the inherent corruption in the society will not go away when one gangster is erased. 

What Marlowe sets out to achieve in this society is to live a life of dignity and ensuring that his clients too can live a dignified life. It is about correcting wrongs done to an individual and giving them the basic decency they require from life.  It is this constant search for individual dignity in a very corrupt society that make Chandler’s novels go beyond the genre. For Chandler is not trying to solve a mystery. He is trying to see how best people can maintain their scruples in face of high odds. Chandler makes his characters, including Marlowe, very real people with their own limitations and flaws. Yet, Chandler maintains an excellent equilibrium wherein the seeming common person has a very strong moral center, which many a times, inspite of going against self-survival, does the right thing. It is this extraordinary equilibrium of his characters and the strong moral canvas on which he paints all his novels which have ensured that Philip Marlowe has moved from the pages of pulp fiction and into the realm of literature.

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