- Noir’s Private “I”
“You’re a man named Marlowe?” “I said I was a man named Marlowe.”Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake
En route by train to solve the mystery of the missing racehorse Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes passes the time narrating “the essential facts of the case” to Dr. Watson. He does this not primarily for his friend’s benefit but rather, surprisingly, for his own. “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person,” he tells Watson (257)—a puzzling remark when we consider that Holmes is celebrated, not least by himself, for his powers of observation rather than for his powers of narration. Why would the detective need to state the facts aloud, especially to someone as pitifully unable to reproduce his method of reasoning as Watson? Holmes tells his companion that he “prefer[s] having a witness, if only as a check to my own memory” (192). Conan Doyle’s famous detective, however, never forgets anything. And since what Watson remembers is of no consequence, the only person likely to deduce something from hearing the detective recite the facts is Holmes himself. No wonder Watson notes Holmes’s tendency to talk “rather to himself . . . than to us” (60). If telling the story of the crime helps Holmes to solve it, this must be because narrating involves selecting certain facts and omitting others. Watson’s typically self-denigrating response to hearing this story—“Though most of the facts were familiar to me, I had not sufficiently appreciated their relative importance, nor their connection to each other” (261)—could, in a sense, be applied to Holmes himself.
The appearance Holmes gives of talking as if to himself anticipates the working method of an otherwise very different detective, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Living in a world in which no one is to be trusted, Marlowe has no Dr. Watson to whom to tell [End Page 50] his story. But isolation does not stop Marlowe from telling his story; indeed, it encourages him to do so: when no one’s story is to be believed, the only story that can be trusted, it turns out, is the story one tells oneself. Chandler’s work is typically labeled hard-boiled. This essay, however, reads Marlowe in the context of that genre’s kissing cousin, noir—a term coined to describe US crime films of the early 1940s but which, as Chandler’s own successful career as a screenwriter demonstrates, has clear affinities with the hard-boiled style he helped popularize.1 My aim in characterizing Chandler’s work as noir is to shift the conversation from familiar questions about whether the form constitutes a genre all its own to questions about what the popularity of the form has to tell us about modern forms of identity. In what follows, I understand the term noir less as a set of thematic and stylistic features—vertical lines, murky lighting and murkier morals, murder, corruption, femme fatales—than as a narrative condition. Noir is a mode of address as much as a milieu—or, rather, its mode of address is its milieu. The genre is dominated by figures speaking to themselves and thus, by extension, to us. The insistent address of noir makes it, I argue, the emblematic modern form, as well as producing one of the great formal innovations of modern cinema—the voiceover. Marlowe’s voice is perhaps the most distinctive of these voices, an immediately recognizable blend of quicksilver wit, moral judgment, and self-justification. Critics have traditionally opposed Chandler’s self-designated chivalric knight to noir’s morally conflicted protagonists.2 Yet the key to Marlowe’s identity is not only the contents of his ethical code, but the voice such a code affords him.
Watson thinks of Holmes as talking only to himself because the doctor believes the detective has no interest in what he (Watson) has to say; Marlowe, conversely, really is talking to himself, we just get to listen in. Holmes’s stories are a mode of thought, a product of epistemological certainty; Marlowe’s stories are a mode of identity, a sign of existential crisis...