RARA-AVIS: Marlowe as racist?

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 04 Sep 2000

Some of youse critics say Chandler's best book about the city was his first, Farewell, My Lovely, which was made into a classic noir movie Murder My Sweet. The novel is based upon a short story, "Try the Girl," that can be found in Chandler's collection Killer in the Rain.

The novel begins in South Central Los Angeles, and the very first sentence tells us we are at "one of those mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro."

Although Philip Marlowe is the narrator, Moose Malloy is the main character. For Malloy, just released from prison, blacks are "smokes" and "dinges" and
"nigger," the saloon he and Marlowe enter is a "shine box," "a dinge joint." Moments after the dirty deed, he hardly remembers murdering a black man here.

The LAPD cops are little different. Detective-lieutenant Nulty attached to the 77th Street Division is glum. "'Another shine killing,'" he calls it. He asks Marlowe, "'What was you doing all the time . . . this Malloy was twisting the neck of this smoke.'" Nulty is not seeking justice, of course. In fact, he couldn't care less.

"One time there was five smokes carved Harlem sunsets on each other down on East Eighty-four. One of them was cold already. There was blood on the furniture, blood on the walls, blood even on the ceiling. I go down and outside the house a guy that works on the Chronicle, a newshawk, is coming off the porch and says,
'Aw, hell, shines,' and gets in his heap and goes away. Don't even go in the house."

When Marlowe does buy an evening edition, he realizes Nulty "was right in one thing at least. The Montgomery killing hadn't even made the want-ad section so far."

Throughout the novel Marlowe and Nulty will crack wise. When Marlowe asks when "the inquest on the nigger" is coming up, Nulty sneers, "Why bother?"

On another occasion Marlowe will say, "Well, all (Malloy) did was kill a Negro . .
. I guess that's only a misdemeanor."

It's only after an old drunken white woman gets beaten and strangled by Malloy does Marlowe say, "It's not just a shine killing any more."

Blacks of course aren't the only victims of prejudice and racial epithets. Marlowe himself speaks not just of "coloreds," but also "pansies" and "Chinamen." Marlowe states, "I saw a Jap gardener at work weeding a huge lawn" on a rich white man's lawn. "He was pulling a piece of weed out of the vast velvet expanse and sneering at it the way Jap gardeners do."

When Marlowe hides out in a waterfront hotel, "I didn't have any bags, so being a Mexican, (the bellhop) opened the door from me and smiled politely just the same." Later, when he sneaks aboard a gambling ship, "I smelled engine oil and saw a wop in a purple shirt reading under a naked light bulb with his grandfather's spectacles."

Marlowe even gets confused between Japanese and Chinese when he talks about a cigarette case, "a trade article that might have cost thirty-five to seventy-five cents in any Oriental store, Hooey Phooey Sing--Long Sing Tung, that kind of place, where a mild mannered Jap hisses at you, laughing heartily when you say that the Moon of Arabia incense smells like the girls in Frisco Sadie's back parlor."

Marlowe goes up against a self-proclaimed "Hollywood Indian" villain who goes by the name Second Planting. This villain speaks in guttural pig Latin, smells
"the earthy smell of primitive man, and not the slimy dirt of cities," looks like a bum, wears clothes two sizes too small for him, has "the short and apparent awkward legs of a chimpanzee."

Marlowe is not alone in his racist speeches. An elderly white woman has "a little colored boy that goes errands for me." A beautiful young blonde sees a beer joint as "a very dingy place."

Chandler's Los Angeles has changed, though, since then.

Hasn't it?

Best wishes

Frederick Zackel

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