Friday, January 1, 2010

"If there were enough like him..."

The scrollwork along the edge of the porch roof was wet with the fog. The fog dripped from the Monterey cypresses that shadowed off into nothing towards the cliff above the ocean. You could see a scant dozen feet in any direction. I went down the porch steps and drifted off through the trees, following an indistinct path until I could hear the wash of the surf licking at the fog, low down at the bottom of the cliff. There wasn't a gleam of light anywhere. I could see a dozen trees clearly at one time, another dozen dimly, then nothing at all but the fog. I circled to the left and drifted back towards the gravel path that went around to the stables where they parked the cars. When I could make out the outlines of the house I slopped. A little in front of me I had heard a man cough.

My steps hadn't made any sound on the soft moist turf. The man coughed again, then stifled the cough with a handkerchief or a sleeve. While he was still doing that I moved forward closer to him. I made him out, a vague shadow close to the path. Something made me step behind a tree and crouch down. The man turned his head. His face should have been a white blur when he did that. It wasn't. It remained dark. There was a mask over it. ....
[Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep]
Several of my friends read fantasy or science fiction for relaxation. I've always preferred mysteries and crime novels. Several — both new ones and old friends — lie on the stack of books I intend to read. Right now, though, I'm reading P.D. James's book about such books: Talking About Detective Fiction. She describes, once again, how the American "hard-boiled" school of detection forever changed the genre and the contempt Raymond Chandler had for the portrayal of detection in books by such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I've always enjoyed both kinds of story and agree with James that one isn't really any more — or less — fantastic than the other. The very best of the "hard-boiled" school was Raymond Chandler and now, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death Mick Hume at Spiked gives us "Why Marlowe is still the chief of detectives."
For some of us there may be no such thing as a bad detective novel, but there are none as good as Raymond Chandler’s. Even if you are unfamiliar with Chandler and have not read his Philip Marlowe novels, such is the shadow he cast that you will recognise his universe: a dark corrupt world where men are weak-hearted tough guys, women are available vixens and Hollywood dreams are dashed by ugly reality, while a wisecracking, chain-smoking detective hero stands up for what’s right. ‘I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country’, says Marlowe in a crisis: ‘What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.’ ....

.... At the centre is Marlowe, a man who is not himself mean, a ‘common man and yet an unusual man’, often lost and alone but never defeated, making a stand against ‘this strange corrupt world in which we live’, run by crooks, crooked cops and rich parasites. Chandler wrote that ‘P Marlowe has as much social conscience as a horse. He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter'....

Marlowe - the definitive detective - has a strong sense of morality, though his morals are not those found in the Bible or the Bill of Rights. His personal conscience believes that law and justice are not necessarily the same thing...and that violence and law-breaking can be the right thing to do. Chandler established the detective as a very human hero. As Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, has noted, Marlowe has ‘a big streak of integrity down his spine and a moral code of his own. But he is no super-hero, acknowledging as he does his fallibility and his fears’. ....

The fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death seems a timely excuse for introducing them to ‘P Marlowe, a simple alcoholic vulgarian who never sleeps with his clients while on duty’ and ‘marks high on insubordination’. ....

Chandler’s conclusion about the hero detective in his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ might sound a touch corny to modern ears, but it rings true down the years: ‘If there were enough like him, the world would be a safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.’ .... [more]
sp!ked review of books | Why Marlowe is still the chief of detectives