Tuesday, July 23, 2013

This Day in Literary History (Raymond Chandler, Creator of Private Eye Marlowe, Born)

July 23, 1888—Raymond Chandler, perhaps the most influential of American crime novelists (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, etc.), was born in Chicago. Beginning in pulp magazines of the 1930s, he took the prototype of the hard-boiled detective genre created by Dashiell Hammett and, through his wisecracking, unlikely knight errant, Philip Marlowe, elevated the genre to the form we know today.

The hard-boiled genre represented a hard, American variation on the more genteel British detective story created by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. The Anglophilic Chandler gave his great American archetype--one who went forth against gangsters, pornographers, crooked cops, you name it--with the same surname as the great Elizabethan playwright-poet, Christopher Marlowe. (Someone whose literary and personal world, come to think of it, might have been every bit as dark as the private eye's.)

Film was another form in which Chandler left an indelible imprint on American culture. It wasn’t just that his own novels were adapted onto the big screen, but that, as a screenwriter himself, he helped shape the emerging film noir genre, in his Oscar-nominated scripts for Double Indemnity (1944) and The Blue Dahlia (1947), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Think of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential--all descendants of his art.

Chandler’s sense of place—the Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s—remains crucial to his art, as well as the one-liners that spring effortlessly from Marlowe—including one I like particularly from his 1953 novel, The Long Goodbye: “I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."

Intrinsic to Chandler’s development of his iconic private eye was suspicion of authority. I wonder, then, what he would have made of today’s police.

I have a feeling that, were he alive today, Chandler would identify traffic cops as a particularly thorny problem. The freeway culture of Southern California was more in its gestation period than its infancy at the start of his career, but the policemen who would become an ubiquitous element of this environment he could glimpse in the L.A. of his time.

Traffic violations are like taxes: arbitrarily enforced, offering the well-off far more areas to escape scot-free than the poor, abetted by a self-interested network of police, lawyers, government and private business. (Auto-insurance companies have learned to turn summonses to their advantage by hiking premiums.)

By making Marlowe a private eye rather than a member of the L.A. force, Chandler implicitly responded to the question posed by the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal; “Who will guard the guardians?” It has to be someone outside the system—a lone wolf, like Marlowe.

Chandler saw that murder was hard and dramatic, but I think would have recognized, had he lived a bit longer, how ripe the ordinary cop—either in the big city or on the highway—is for the inevitable temptations of corruption and abuse of power by the strong of the weak. Most of us can point to the small-time, petty targeting of a summons. If police can be unfair or calculating in a small thing such as this, how can they be trusted to enforce, with only minimal constitutional safeguards, a broad-based policy such as stop-and-frisk that targets an entire racial or ethnic group?

No comments: