Picture a white man in his late 30s, early 40s on the outside, in Los Angeles. He lives alone and drinks alone—pretty regularly—and has no women permanently in his life. He has a small spare apartment and an even smaller and sparer office from which he runs a private detective business. He is generally disaffected, acts like he knows what he’s doing, and talks mostly in smart-ass one-liners. When he has a chance at human intimacy, he passes. He’s a hard man with nothing better to do and no desire to do it.
By today’s standards, this man is a borderline drunk, semi-depressive, relationship avoider. When Raymond Chandler places the same man in the 1930s, he’s Philip Marlowe, a very cool, very smart borderline drunk, semi-depressive, relationship avoider—that is, he’s basically a regular guy. Chandler, one of the masters of the hard-boiled detective novel, knows the ropes and how to work them. In The High Window (1942), the third of seven novels Chandler wrote using the Marlowe character (he died in the middle of an eighth), Chandler uses all his tricks and even a wonderful, pre-postmodern self-reflexive moment, making fun of the genre’s conventions:
“Alright,” he said wearily. “Get on with it. I have a feeling you are going to be very brilliant. Remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot. Just like a detective in a book.”
“Sure. Taking the evidence piece by piece, putting it all together in a neat pattern, sneaking in an odd bit I had on my hip here and there, analyzing the motives and characters and making them out to be quite different from what anybody—or myself for that matter—thought them to be up to this golden moment—and finally making a sort of world-weary pounce on the least promising suspect.”
Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and people are almost tediously detailed, his similes (“I chewed my lip. It felt as stiff as a piece of glass.”) campy. The dialog, often in less than full sentences, is short, snappy, and hard to follow if you’re not paying attention. It’s a fun novel when you look past the whacked out gender assumptions rife throughout and the rampant self-destructive behavior. But this is all part of the book’s and Chandler’s appeal and why Bogart played Marlowe in the movie version of The Big Sleep. Many have loved the blasé, explicitly non-pc, anti-hero. Because I reject the premise of a man who has made choices about his life that he cannot undo is not a reason to reject the books. I read them as part of their era and as an important part of the noir tradition.