A producer who last year was toying with the idea of making a television series featuring my private detective Lew Archer asked me over lunch at Perino’s if Archer was based on any actual person. “Yes,” I said. “Myself.” He gave me a semi-pitying Hollywood look. I tried to explain that while I had known some excellent detectives and watched them work, Archer was created from the inside out. I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me.
The conversation went downhill from there, as if I had made a damaging admission. But I believe most detective-story writers would give the same answer. A close paternal or fraternal relationship between writer and detective is a marked peculiarity of the form. Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective hero has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society.
Poe, who invented the modern detective story, and his detective Dupin, are good examples. Poe’s was a first-rate but guilt-haunted mind painfully at odds with the realities of pre-Civil-War America. Dupin is a declassed aristocrat, as Poe’s heroes tend to be, an obvious equivalent for the artist-intellectual who has lost his place in society and his foothold in tradition. Dupin has no social life, only one friend. He is set apart from other people by his superiority of mind.
In his creation of Dupin, Poe was surely compensating for his failure to become what his extraordinary mental powers seemed to fit him for. He had dreamed of an intellectual hierarchy governing the cultural life of the nation, himself at its head. Dupin’s outwitting of an unscrupulous politician in “The Purloined Letter,” his “solution” of an actual New York case in “Marie Roget,” his repeated trumping of the cards held by the Prefect of Police, are Poe’s vicarious demonstrations of superiority to an indifferent society and its officials.
Of course, Poe’s detective stories gave the writer, and give the reader, something deeper than such obvious satisfactions. He devised them as a means of exorcising or controlling guilt and horror. The late William Carlos Williams, in a profound essay, related Poe’s sense of guilt and horror to the terrible awareness of a hyper-conscious man standing naked and shivering on a new continent. The guilt was doubled by Poe’s anguished insight into the unconscious mind. It had to be controlled by some rational pattern, and the detective story, “the tale of ratiocination,” provided such a pattern.
The tale of the bloody murders in the Rue Morgue, Poe’s first detective story (1841), is a very hymn to analytic reason intended, as Poe wrote later, “to depict some very remarkable features in the mental character of my friend, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.” Dupin clearly represents the reason, which was Poe’s mainstay against the nightmare forces of the mind. These latter are acted out by the murderous ape: “Gnashing its teeth, and flashing fire from its eyes, it flew upon the body of the girl and embedded its fearful talons in her throat, retaining its grasp until she expired.”
Poe’s detective stories gave the writer, and give the reader, something deeper than such obvious satisfactions. He devised them as a means of exorcising or controlling guilt and horror.
Dupin’s reason masters the ape and explains the inexplicable—the wrecked apartment behind the locked door, the corpse of a young woman thrust up the chimney—but not without leaving a residue of horror. The nightmare can’t quite be explained away, and persists in the teeth of reason. An unstable balance between reason and more primitive human qualities is characteristic of the detective story. For both writer and reader, it is an imaginative arena where such conflicts can be worked out safely, under artistic controls.
The first detective story has other archetypal features, particularly in the way it is told. The “I” who narrates it is not the detective Dupin. The splitting of the protagonist into a narrator and a detective has certain advantages: it helps to eliminate the inessential, and to postpone the solution. More important, the author can present his self-hero, the detective, without undue embarrassment, and can handle dangerous emotional material at two or more removes from himself, as Poe does in “Rue Morgue.”
The disadvantages of the split protagonist emerge more clearly in the saga of Dupin’s successor Sherlock Holmes. One projection of the author, the narrator, is made to assume a posture of rather blind admiration before another projection of the author, the detective hero, and the reader is invited to share Dr. Watson’s adoration of the great man. An element of narcissistic fantasy, impatient with the limits of the self, seems to be built into this traditional form of the detective story.
I’m not forgetting that Holmes’ modus operandi was based on that of an actual man, Conan Doyle’s friend and teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell. Although his “science” usually boils down to careful observation, which was Dr. Bell’s forte, Holmes is very much the scientific criminologist. This hero of scientism may be in fact the dominant culture hero of our technological society.
Though Holmes is a physical scientist specializing in chemistry and anatomy, and Dupin went in for literary and psychological analysis, Holmes can easily be recognized as Dupin’s direct descendant. His most conspicuous feature, his ability to read thoughts on the basis of associative clues, is a direct borrowing from Dupin. And like Dupin, he is a projection of the author, who at the time of Holmes’ creation was a not very busy young doctor. According to his son Adrian, Conan Doyle admitted when he was dying: “If anyone is Sherlock Holmes, then I confess it is myself.”
Holmes had other ancestors and collateral relations which reinforce the idea that he was a portrait of the artist as a great detective. His drugs, his secrecy and solitude, his moods of depression (which he shared with Dupin) are earmarks of the Romantic rebel then and now. Behind Holmes lurk the figures of nineteenth-century poets, Byron certainly, probably Baudelaire, who translated Poe and pressed Poe’s guilty knowledge to new limits. I once made a case for the theory (and Anthony Boucher didn’t disagree) that much of the modern development of the detective story stems from Baudelaire, his “dandyism” and his vision of the city as inferno. Conan Doyle’s London, which influenced Eliot’s “Wasteland,” has something of this quality.
But Holmes’ Romantic excesses aren’t central to his character. His Baudelairean spleen and drug addiction are merely the idiosyncrasies of genius. Holmes is given the best of both worlds, and remains an English gentleman, accepted on the highest social levels. Permeating the thought and language of Conan Doyle’s stories is an air of blithe satisfaction with a social system based on privilege.
This obvious characteristic is worth mentioning because it was frozen into one branch of the form. Nostalgia for a privileged society accounts for one of the prime attractions of the traditional English detective story and its innumerable American counterparts. Neither wars nor the dissolution of governments and societies interrupt that long weekend in the country house which is often, with more or less unconscious symbolism, cut off by a failure in communications from the outside world.
It is Marlowe’s doubleness that makes him interesting: the hard-boiled mask half-concealing Chandler’s poetic and satiric mind. Part of our pleasure derives from the interplay between the mind of Chandler and the voice of Marlowe.
The contemporary world is the special province of the American hardboiled detective story. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and the other writers for Black Mask who developed it, were in conscious reaction against the Anglo-American school which, in the work of S. S. Van Dine for example, had lost contact with contemporary life and language. Chandler’s dedication, to the editor of Black Mask, of a collection of his early stories (1944), describes the kind of fiction they had been trying to supplant: “For Joseph Thompson Shaw with affection and respect, and in memory of the time when we were trying to get murder away from the upper classes, the weekend house party and the vicar’s rose-garden, and back to the people who are really good at it.” While Chandler’s novels swarm with plutocrats as well as criminals, and even with what pass in Southern California for aristocrats, the Black Mask revolution was a real one. From it emerged a new kind of detective hero, the classless, restless man of American democracy, who spoke the language of the street.
Hammett, who created the most powerful of these new heroes in Sam Spade, had been a private detective and knew the corrupt inner workings of American cities. But Sam Spade was a less obvious projection of Hammett than detective heroes usually are of their authors. Hammett had got his early romanticism under strict ironic control. He could see Spade from outside, without affection, perhaps with some bleak compassion. In this as in other respects Spade marks a sharp break with the Holmes tradition. He possesses the virtues and follows the code of a frontier male. Thrust from his sins into the urban inferno, he pits his courage and cunning against its denizens, plays for the highest stakes available, love and money, and loses nearly everything in the end. His lover is guilty of murder; his narrow, bitter code forces Spade to turn her over to the police. The Maltese falcon has been stripped of jewels.
Perhaps the stakes and implied losses are higher than I have suggested. The worthless falcon may symbolize a lost tradition, the great cultures of the Mediterranean past which have become inaccessible to Spade and his generation. Perhaps the bird stands for the Holy Ghost itself, or for its absence.
The ferocious intensity of the work, the rigorous spelling-out of Sam Spade’s deprivation of his full human heritage, seem to me to make his story tragedy, if there is such a thing as deadpan tragedy. Hammett was the first American writer to use the detective-story for the purposes of a major novelist, to present a vision, blazing if disenchanted, of our lives. Sam Spade was the product and reflection of a mind which was not at home in Zion, or in Zenith.
Chandler’s vision is disenchanted, too, but in spite of its hallucinated brilliance of detail it lacks the tragic unity of Hammett’s. In his essay on “The Simple Art of Murder,” an excitingly written piece of not very illuminating criticism, Chandler offers a prescription for the detective hero which suggests a central weakness in his vision:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption…. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything…. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
While there may be “a quality of redemption” in a good novel, it belongs to the whole work and is not the private property of one of the characters. No hero of serious fiction could act within a moral straitjacket requiring him to be consistently virtuous and unafraid. Sam Spade was submerged and struggling in tragic life. The detective-as-redeemer is a backward step in the direction of sentimental romance, and an over-simplified world of good guys and bad guys. The people of Chandler’s early novels, though they include chivalrous gangsters and gangsters’ molls with hearts of gold, are divided into two groups by an angry puritanical morality. The goats are usually separated from the sheep by sexual promiscuity or perversion. Such a strong and overt moralistic bias actually interferes with the broader moral effects a novelist aims at.
Fortunately, in the writing of his books Chandler toned down his Watsonian enthusiasm for his detective’s moral superiority. The detective Marlowe, who tells his own stories in the first person, and sometimes admits to being afraid, has a self-deflating wit which takes the curse off his knight-errantry:
I wasn’t wearing a gun… I doubted if it would do me any good. The big man would probably take it away from me and eat it. (Farewell, My Lovely, 1940)
The Chandler-Marlowe prose is a highly charged blend of laconic wit and imagistic poetry set to breakneck rhythms. Its strong colloquial vein reaffirms the fact that the Black Mask revolution was a revolution in language as well as subject matter. It is worth noticing that H.L. Mencken, the great lexicographer of our vernacular, was an early editor of Black Mask. His protégé James M. Cain once said that his discovery of the western roughneck made it possible for him to write fiction. Marlowe and his predecessors performed a similar function for Chandler, whose English education put a special edge on his passion for our new language, and a special edge on his feelings against privilege. Socially mobile and essentially classless (he went to college but has a working-class bias), Marlowe liberated his author’s imagination into an overheard democratic prose which is one of the most effective narrative instruments in our recent literature.
Under the obligatory “tough” surface of the writing, Marlowe is interestingly different from the standard hardboiled hero who came out of Black Mask. Chandler’s novels focus in his hero’s sensibility, and could almost be described as novels of sensibility. Their constant theme is big-city loneliness, and the wry pain of a sensitive man coping with the roughest elements of a corrupt society.
It is Marlowe’s doubleness that makes him interesting: the hard-boiled mask half-concealing Chandler’s poetic and satiric mind. Part of our pleasure derives from the interplay between the mind of Chandler and the voice of Marlowe. The recognized difference between them is part of the dynamics of the narrative, setting up bipolar tensions in the prose. The marvelous opening paragraph of The Big Sleep (1939) will illustrate some of this:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Marlowe is making fun of himself, and of Chandler in the role of brash young detective. There is pathos, too, in the idea that a man who can write like a fallen angel should be a mere private eye; and Socratic irony. The gifted writer conceals himself behind Marlowe’s cheerful mindlessness. At the same time the retiring, middle-aged, scholarly author acquires a durable mask, forever 38, which allows him to face the dangers of society high and low.
Chandler’s conception of Marlowe, and his relationship with his character, deepened as his mind penetrated the romantic fantasy, and the over-bright self-consciousness, that limited his vision. At the end of The Long Goodbye (1953) there is a significant confrontation between Marlowe and a friend who had betrayed him and apparently gone homosexual. In place of the righteous anger which Marlowe would have indulged in in one of the earlier novels he now feels grief and disquiet, as if the confrontation might be with a part of himself.
The friend, the ex-friend, tries to explain his moral breakdown: “I was in the commandos, bud. They don’t take you if you’re just a piece of fluff. I got badly hurt and it wasn’t any fun with those Nazi doctors. It did something to me.” This is all we are told. At the roaring heart of Chandler’s maze there is a horror which even at the end of his least evasive novel remains unspeakable. Whatever its hidden meaning, this scene was written by a man of tender and romantic sensibility who had been injured. Chandler used Marlowe to shield while half-expressing his sensibility, and to act out the mild paranoia which often goes with this kind of sensibility and its private hurts, and which seems to be virtually endemic among contemporary writers.
I can make this judgment with some assurance because it applies with a vengeance to some of my earlier books, particularly Blue City (1947). A decade later, in The Doomsters, I made my detective Archer criticize himself as “a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle.” This novel marked a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition, which it had taken me some years to digest, and freed me to make my own approach to the crimes and sorrows of life.
I learned a great deal from Chandler—any writer can—but there had always been basic differences between us. One was in our attitude to plot. Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that the structure must be single, and intended.
Another difference between Chandler and me is in our use of language. My narrator Archer’s wider and less rigidly stylized range of expression, at least in more recent novels, is related to a central difference between him and Marlowe. Marlowe’s voice is limited by his role as the hardboiled hero. He must speak within his limits as a character, and these limits are quite narrowly conceived. Chandler tried to relax them in The Long Goodbye, but he was old and the language failed to respond. He was trapped like the late Hemingway in an unnecessarily limiting idea of self, hero, and language.
I could never write of Archer: “He is the hero, he is everything.” It is true that his actions carry the story, his comments on it reflect my attitudes (but deeper attitudes remain implicit), and Archer or a narrator like him is indispensable to the kind of books I write. But he is not their emotional center. And in spite of what I said at the beginning, Archer has developed away from his early status as a fantasy projection of myself and my personal needs. Cool, I think, is the word for our mature relationship. Archer himself has what New Englanders call “weaned affections.”
An author’s heavy emotional investment in a narrator-hero can get in the way of the story and blur its meanings, as some of Chandler’s books demonstrate. A less encumbered narrator permits greater flexibility, and fidelity to the intricate truths of life. I don’t have to celebrate Archer’s physical or sexual prowess, or work at making him consistently funny and charming. He can be self-forgetful, almost transparent at times, and concentrate as good detectives (and good writers) do, on the people whose problems he is investigating. These other people are for me the main thing: they are often more intimately related to me and my life than Lew Archer is. He is the obvious self-projection which holds the eye (my eye as well as the reader’s) while more secret selves creep out of the woodwork behind the locked door. Remember how the reassuring presence of Dupin permitted Poe’s mind to face the nightmare of the homicidal ape and the two dead women.
Archer is a hero who sometimes verges on being an anti-hero. While he is a man of action, his actions are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge. This gradually developed conception of the detective hero as the mind of the novel is not wholly new, but it is probably my main contribution to this special branch of fiction. Some such refinement of the conception of the detective hero was needed to bring this kind of novel closer to the purpose and range of the mainstream novel.
It may be that internal realism, a quality of mind, is one of the most convincing attributes a character can have. Policemen and lawyers have surprised me with the opinion that Archer is quite true to life. The two best private detectives I personally know resemble him in their internal qualities: their intelligent humaneness, an interest in other people transcending their interest in themselves, and a toughness of mind which enables them to face human weaknesses, including their own, with open eyes. Both of them dearly love to tell a story.
[From Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan and published by The Library of America. Copyright © 1964, 1992 by the Margaret Millar Charitable Remainder Unitrust u/a 4/12/82. Used by permission.]