For as long as I can remember, I have had a persistent obsession with the aesthetic of 1940s detective noir. My working theory as of now is that my interest in it originated from watching the Sam Spud segments on Between the Lions back when I was a wee one. But the whole noir mystery ethos has continued to fascinate me throughout my life. When my fiction isn’t a straight-up noir parody, it often has elements of mystery and detection in the story structure. And my favorite course in college was a class called “The Ethics of Mystery and Suspense,” where the syllabus included authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. This class was my introduction to that immortal detective of Chandlerian invention, Philip Marlowe.
Marlowe is an incredibly enigmatic figure in his devotion to a personal code of ethics in the face of countless systems of corruption. Social, economic, political, you name a sphere of life and Marlowe has seen its underbelly. However, Marlowe’s personal ethics are constantly obscured by his own impulse to mirror the hardboiled ethos of the world around him. One minute he’s firing a steady steam of cynical quips at corrupt police officers and duplicitous dames, the next minute he’s risking his neck for the sole purpose of getting to the bottom of a possible well of crime and corruption. Marlowe’s motives are subtle and often obscure, but in the end, Chandler’s novels all come back to the protection of morality in a seemingly amoral world. It’s not coincidence that Marlowe is often being compared to a knight by Chandler, both in the novels themselves and in outside comments by the author.
So Marlowe is an angel who knows how to dance with the devil. Why should you care? Well, firstly, you really should read some Chandler novels. They’re fantastic. (Sure, they have their share of 30s and 40s racism and sexism, but a good reader will be able to look at the novels critically and with proper context.) I think Marlowe’s quixotic pursuit of righteousness isn’t exactly a good example to follow in a completely literal fashion, but he gives a good primer on sacrificing self-interest for the good of others. And sounding damn cool while he does it. The writing is really spectacular. Some of these sentences can rival the best writers of America’s history.
Sure, there are dark sides to this type of literature, especially in its early days. Like I said, it reflects the racism and sexism of its time, usually in a non-constructive way, and certain stereotypes like the femme fatale or the criminal foreigner do not help, but mystery has evolved like any genre. Modern writers like Walter Mosley, Chester Himes, and even Janet Evanovich have helped shaped the genre in exciting new ways, but the original hits still have elements of greatness to them—interesting characters, complex twists, messages of morality, and even some surprising humor. (And if you really want to start at the beginning, you can read Edgar Allen Poe’s detective stories. (Is there a genre Poe didn’t invent?))