- Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed by John Paul Athanasourelis
John Paul Athanasourelis’s Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed examines Chandler’s detective with relation to his place in the hard-boiled literary tradition. Athanasourelis correctly observes that critics often categorize hard-boiled detectives as a largely homogenous group who, following in the wake of frontier heroes of nineteenth-century popular fiction, are twentieth-century urban manifestations of American Rugged Individualism. He convincingly argues that Chandler’s detective is constructed along different lines—less an avenger than a negotiator, less a character that stands Byronically aloof from a debased society and more one that engages that compromised society’s activities, hoping to productively negotiate its tensions. Athanasourelis does this under the template of John Dewey’s notion of individualism and its shift from nineteenth-century rugged individualism to a more socially engaged twentieth-century cooperative or liberal individualism.
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe traces the origins and development of the hard-boiled detective nicely, though along traditional lines, from the works of Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett to those of Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Ross Macdonald. The book’s main contribution lies in separating Chandler’s work from that of others by noting his aversion to employing the redemptive violence commonplace in the genre and in outlining Marlowe’s role not as a righteous avenger but rather as a negotiator, one who is willing to acknowledge flaws in himself and tolerate them in others. Where Daly’s Race Williams, Hammett’s Continental Op, and Spillane’s Mike Hammer sadistically slaughter criminals to whom they feel morally superior, Marlowe is more likely to view them as part of a complex social fabric and come to terms with them. Athanasourelis notes that, where the body count is often high in much of hard-boiled fiction, Marlowe only kills one person in the seven novels in which he appears.
The character of Marlowe is certainly a fertile topic for exploration. His popularity has made his name (with Hammett’s Sam Spade) a generic term for all hard-boiled private detectives, one that has had numerous manifestations in fiction, film, radio, television, and graphic novels over the past seventy-five years. He has been widely imitated and frequently parodied. The character’s cultural circulation is so extensive that people who have never read Chandler’s novels often categorize all hard-boiled detectives as “like Marlowe.” Furthermore, popular writers have written new works featuring Marlowe in what they consider Chandler’s mode. Robert P. Parker expanded a fragment left at Chandler’s death into Poodle Springs (1989) and, later, wrote Perchance to Dream (1991) as a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (1990), twenty-three popular writers contributed a “new” Marlowe story.
The book does a nice job in underscoring the errors in the “one size fits all” depictions of hard-boiled detectives but, in differentiating Marlowe from such characters, implies that “one size fits all” applies to most other detectives in the genre, which is not the case. The book also does not explore related and influential components of the genre, such as hard-boiled writers who do not specialize in a popular detective, like James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich, women hard-boiled writers like Patricia Highsmith, or those of color like Chester Himes and Walter Mosley, or account for cultural changes in the genre over time. Although the genre remains robust, Athanasourelis’s survey largely ends with Ross Macdonald in the 1970s. [End Page 299]
Even within its main area of focus, American hard-boiled detective fiction from the 1920s to the 1960s, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe could benefit from a greater sophistication of its analytical bases. While it can be argued that the Continental Op and Mike Hammer are rugged individualists, they are very different characters who inhabit very different social environments. The Op is a company man who works for and is largely loyal to the...