One Book, One Chicago Spring 2008
Private Eye, Public Conscience
By Pico Iyer
I lit another cigarette and looked at the dental-supply company’s bill again. The minutes went by with their fingers to their lips. Then there was a small knocking on wood. It was a blond. A blond to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight. She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. “Cops are just people,” she said irrelevantly. “They start out that way, I’ve heard.”
The lines above come from four different novels by Raymond Chandler. Yet all of them seem to issue from our memories or dreams, or at least the ones in which we picture ourselves, alone in the office, dreaming of cool blonds and stiff whiskeys (or cool whiskey and stiff blonds). Raymond Chandler was ghostwriter to the sound track our lives so often imitate. The figure of the tough-but-tender hero cracking wise to cover up his soft spots; the lethal blond and the flick-knife dialogue on which the movies (and so the rest of us) still feed—all of them seem to have been copyrighted by the one-time oil executive who only began writing at the age of 45. In seven novels and in the screenplays he wrote for Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, Chandler scripted much of the unshaven poetry and arsenic idealism that form us now, and haunt us still, in Mickey Spillane beer ads and smoky urban videos, from Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown to Joan Didion’s Malibu.
Chandler’s most immortal creation—co-produced by Humphrey Bogart—was the quixotic figure of the gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, private eye and public conscience, sitting behind his pebbled-glass door with an office bottle and a solitary game of chess. What made Marlowe special was simply the fact that he was nothing special, no genius like Sherlock Holmes, no Connoisseur model like James Bond. Just an underpaid drudge with, as one mobster says, “no dough, no family, no prospects, no nothing”—except a habit of making other people’s worries his own, and a gift for walking in on corpses he knows just well enough to mourn.
Chandler’s greatest invention, however, may well have been Marlowe’s constant adversary, California. Nobody has ever caught so well the smell of eucalyptus in the night or the treacherous lights and crooked streets of the L.A. hills. In Hollywood, city of false fronts and trick shoots, Chandler found the perfect location for investigating artifice, and with it the shadow side of the American dream of reinventing lives. The one time Marlowe enters a Hollywood stage, it is from the back, and that, in a sense, is his customary position: seeing glamour from behind, inspecting illusions from the inside out, a two-bit peeper spying on the rich man’s costume ball from the service entrance. His is a Hollywood filled with missing persons, bit players who are living a long way from the lights: gigolos, gold diggers and snooping old women, remote-controlled punks and “the kind of lawyers you hope the other fellow has.” Chandler found gurus, juju addicts, pornographers and abortionists before most people knew they existed.
It is no coincidence, then, that Chandler’s most famous weapon was the simile, the perfect device for describing a world in which everything is like something else, and nothing is itself. And the unrelenting sun of California only intensified the shadiness. By the end of his career, in fact, Chandler was pulling off a series of bitter twists and brilliant turns on the paradoxes of illusion: the prim secretary from Manhattan is, in truth, from Manhattan, Kans., and turns out to be a tight little chiseler, while the movie-star vamp has a fugitive innocence the more theatrical for being real. Chandler’s greatest technical flaw—his way, ironically, with plots—arose from the simple fact that he felt the only real mystery worth investigating was morality, and why only the innocent confess, while murderers are brought to no justice but their own.
There was, of course, an element of romantic sentimentalism in much of this, as Chandler well knew. It was no coincidence that he called his first detective “Mallory.” Chandler identified all too closely with his “shop-soiled Galahad,” struggling to maintain a code of honor in a Hollywood that had never heard of the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Chandler knew the sting of being typecast as a small-time operator (“The better you write a mystery,” he complained, “the more clearly you demonstrate that the mystery is not really worth writing”). Yet what he knew most of all, as one of Hollywood’s great theoreticians, was that a writer cannot afford to be too removed from the streets, and that what the public needs is a shot of romantic realism… Chandler was the laureate of the loner, and so his admirers recall him now in quieter ways, alone, unnoticed, with a light on in their darker corners.
Iyer, Pico. “Private Eye, Public Conscience.” Time, December 12, 1988, p. 98.
Pico Iyer shares more of his admiration for Chandler in a panel discussion on April 15.