By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In Philip Marlowe he created an individual conscience so powerful, nothing could corrupt it. Not money, not women, nor power or prestige. With his combined English and American background, Chandler rolled the myths of the white knight and the American cowboy into one to create a dick with a daunting moral code, who also happened to be one of the loneliest characters in all of American literature, a guy with no friends, no family, no pets, no past, no real future, and, apparently, no desires except the longing for justice and an occasional stirring for a blonde, though women didn’t really interest Marlowe. By and large, he was unavailable to them. Chandler understood how loneliness would become our new modern disease, the condition of a whole culture. It’s the source of much of the controlled, half-poetical emotion that lies at the heart of Marlowe and of every Chandler story.
Chandler liked to believe that he and Marlowe had a lot in common. In some ways they did; in others, nada. Marlowe was the consummate bachelor, while Chandler was tied to his mother, whom he revered, and later to his older wife, whom he adored and kept on a pedestal. He never masturbated as a kid, he said, because he found it dirty and had been told that if you did that, you’d later be disappointed when the real thing finally came along. The truth is, both he and his private eye were enigmas. Marlowe, he said, had an innocence that could seem almost immature, if being in revolt against a corrupt society can be considered immature. He knew that if there was any hope for the future, it rested with the individual, the guy (or gal) who thinks for himself and doesn’t take orders from above.
It’s hard to appreciate just how radical The Big Sleep seemed when it came out in 1939, how it disturbed critics with its portrayal of a world peopled by “moral defectives” (as one reviewer said), how it was a “study in depravity” (according to another), a story populated by pornographers and homosexual blackmailers, mobsters, corrupt cops and rich girls who posed nude in exchange for drugs, bad-seed daughters who killed for vengeful sport and gangsters who controlled politicians. The novel depicted a rapacious midcentury America, where getting and spending, hawking and hustling, corruption and greed and all the rotten little secrets beneath the brash, rude surface of the city signified the death of the Victorian-beau ideal. It’s important to remember that Chandler was as much an English-Victorian writer as a California-American one.
Among the things he liked about L.A. were cars. He loved to drive, loved the freedom encapsulated in the very word automobile. His big green Packard convertible was perfect for migrating to Big Bear for the summers and Palm Springs for the winter. Maybe it was why he moved more than three-dozen times in and around L.A. With an automobile, Chandler could. He embraced the new world of transience and mobility the way a duck takes to migrating, as if it were part of his genes. He liked screenwriters better than novelists: He felt they were more fun and less pretentious. Hollywood eventually beat him down, but he also had some good times when he worked there in the ’40s.
Chandler didn’t create a feel-good world in his books. He gave you permission to feel unhappy about the society you found yourself in. He witnessed the advent of television and mass advertising: Television had possibilities, he felt, though it bred such passivity that watching it was like being mired in the primeval ooze, while advertising was an elaborate scam, a waste of human intelligence, a conning of the public, an inherently dishonest activity guaranteed to make him hate any product being hawked. He didn’t much like the new post–World War II consumer culture either, or the fact that the all-tile bathroom had become the new standard of civilization. He particularly hated the idea of built-in obsolescence — a phrase, regrettably, that’s hardly even uttered anymore.
Toward the end of his life Chandler said, “The story of our time isn’t the story of war or the atomic bomb. It’s the story of an idealist married to a gangster and how their children and home life turn out.” He could be describing The Sopranos.
Only it isn’t The Sopranos. It’s us. It’s the story of our time, just as he said, the unending and timeless tale of America, with its idealists on one end of the ideological spectrum, and its gangsters on the other, be they Wall Street crooks or your ordinary garden-variety thugs. We are the children he spoke of. And we are still waiting, 50 years after Chandler’s death — with ever more urgent concerns filling our minds — to see just how our collective home life will turn out.
No matter how you live, in the end, you die alone, like a dog in the gutter, he wrote to his one-time secretary, Dorothy Fisher, not long after Cissy’s death. It’s a tough statement from a guy who was a romantic at heart. Unfortunately, it came true for him. And yet, his work lives on — those seven remarkable novels and some two-dozen stories in which you can find such exquisite amusement. The astute reader can also find much more. Other writers come and go, but Chandler is forever.