RARA-AVIS: Marlowe

From: Carrie Pruett ( pruettc@hotmail.com)
Date: 29 Aug 2001

>Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2001 08:03:09 -0400
>From: Kevin Burton Smith < kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com>
>Subject: RARA-AVIS: Re: boy/girl/boy/girl & Marlowe
>Some concrete examples of Marlowe's sexism and racism would be
>greatly appreciated, at this point.

Hmm, well I didn't say anything about racism and I don't recall that anyone on the list has. I do remember a few words in "farewell my lovely" that would be considered racial slurs today but I imagine were commonly used among whites at the time, and I didn't get any sense of actual animosity toward blacks.

I did call Marlowe homophobic - a word that annoys me but nevertheless seems to fit his attitude toward gays. There's a line in "The Big Sleep" about how a fairy can't throw a punch and a lot of other insinuation about the sexual proclivities of various characters. I don't think of Marlowe as particularly sexist for his time period; I just don't get the impression that he likes women very much. His reaction to Carmen Sternwood is particularly what sticks with me - all the talk about her evilness and corruption, manifest through sexuality. Now Carmen's a nasty piece of work, you'll get no argument from me there, but Marlowe's reaction to her from the beginning seems disproportionate to anything bad that he knows about her. This is all tied up in 50s attitudes about "nymphomania" and I admit it is hard to sort out the fiction from the reality here; from a contemporary psychological understanding (and I'm just talking about conventional wisdom, I make no claims to expertise) it's difficult not to look at Carmen and wonder if she's a victim of incest or some other form of sexual abuse. Of course, I don't think that Chandler intended this; from his point of view, Carmen is evil, the corruption of the flesh, etc. I am quite aware this is an anachronistic attitude and said as much in my initial post on the subject. Still, the only females I can recall Marlowe really liking are
"Silver-Wig" - whose appearance is very brief and whose virtue apparently consists of sacrificing herself on the altar of Eddie Mars's honor - and that annoying Nancy Drew-ish creature who shows up in "Lovely".

Marlowe's "look at all that evil and corruption and filth" attitude toward the pornography dealer also seems relatively prudish; not saying that he's right or wrong - once again these dealers are obviously nasty pieces of work, though Marlowe is a lot more worried about them victimizing Carmen's father with blackmail than harming Carmen herself -it's simply a different attitude than today when a hero's default reaction is "anything between consenting adults is OK."

>Because to simply dismiss Marlowe as some moralizing, racist sexist
>is to completely misread the character, to the extent I have to
>wonder if some of you ever read Chandler's books, or are relying on
>half-baked theories from people with their own political agendas who
>haven't read the books either.

I've read "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell my Lovely." May have read some others when I was younger ("The High Window" or "Lady of the Lake"?) but don't remember them well enough to have many comments about them. Actually, come to think of it I don't remember "Lovely" that well either so I'm mostly talking about "Sleep."

There's no question that I love Chandler's writing, I find the archetypal Marlowe character fascinating, he just doesn't seem like someone I would like as a friend. Not that all my friends are nymphomaniacs and pornographers; I suppose fundamentally, Marlowe seems to me to lack sympathy
- or at least, to spend it on odd subjects. In "Sleep," he sympathizes with the General (a bad parent and a man who's done some nasty things by his own admission) and Silver-Wig (utterly self-effacing female; willing essentially to erase her own existence for an utterly worthless man, then again to risk her life to help Marlowe - well no wonder he likes her).

I'm quite aware that Chandler/Marlowe was a product of his time, but that doesn't prevent me from having an honest emotional reaction to the characters either. My original question was actually aimed at this difference - do today's readers have a harder time taking a relentlessly moral character than a more obviously flawed one? That seems to me to be the case, right or wrong. For the most part, we really don't *want* the knight that Chandler conceived his hero to be. Neither Chandler nor Marlowe seems particularly interested in seeing where the bad guys are coming from, though that's what a lot of today's writers give us (and thus presumably what we want?) Not that this blurring of the lines between good and bad is new - Hammett did it, Chandler from what I've seen didn't want to (though ironically some of Marlowe's "good" attitudes of the time - antigay sentiment for example - is precisely what marks him as partly "bad" to a lot of contemporary readers).

Of course, today's writers are not immune from moralizing - take Lehane on race in "A Drink Before the War" or for that matter Lehane on gentrification in "Mystic River" (the latter aspect integrated much better into story/character but nonetheless there). Neither of these examples turned me off from the characters themselves, though that's not to say there aren't moralizing writers today who do turn me off.

>And really, even by today's
>standards, while nobody would consider him a bleeding heart, he still
>seems a far cry from the monster that some of you seem to see him as.

I haven't read any posts here suggesting Marlowe was a monster. I'd rather have him save my butt than Sam Spade, I'd just rather have a drink with Spade afterwards.

. Or some of those neo-ultra-hard-boiled
>dick-waving extravaganzas trying to pass themselves off as VERY

Now I'm intrigued. Such as?


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