RARA-AVIS: Marlowe as racist

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 30 Aug 2001

A while back I was sketching out an essay I wanted to write about this subject. So I compiled the following. For whatever reason I could not complete the essay. I had, simply, no ending I liked, that I felt comfortable with, that I felt was honest and truthful. I posted it once before here and asked the list what you all thought. I seem to recall most felt too uncomfortable to speak definitively. Maybe I was wrong.

"It's not just a shine killing any more" by Frederick Zackel

The mystery novelist Raymond Chandler wrote great stories about Los Angeles. Walter Mosley writes about it now in Devil in a Blue Dress and a half-dozen other Easy Rawlins novels. James Ellroy writes about it now in Black Dahlia and Suicide Hill. John Gregory Dunne wrote about it in True Confessions. Each has discovered the Dark Side of the Dream.

Some 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. Back in 1940 Philip Marlowe says that, "Law is where you buy it in this town."

Marlowe gets sapped by a pair of Bay City police. (Bay City was Chandler's Santa Monica.) The larger cop -- who turns out to be the Chief of Detectives -- is described as "a windblown blossom of some two hundred pounds with freckled teeth and the mellow voice of a circus barker. He was tough, fast and he ate red meat. Nobody could push him around. He was the kind of cop who spits on his blackjack every night instead of saying his prayers. But he had humorous eyes."

Marlowe on Santa Monica: "Sure, it's a nice town. It's probably no crookeder than Los Angeles. But you can only buy a piece of a big city. You can buy a town this size all complete, with the original box and tissue paper. That's the difference."

The Chief of Police in Chandler's Bay City is big city all the way, one of those
"fat prosperous cops with Chamber of Commerce voices." Marlowe says, "No straw was sticking to his hair."

The Chief tells him that "Trouble . . . is something our little city don't know much about, Mr. Marlowe. Our city is small but very, very clean. I look out of my western windows and I see the Pacific Ocean. Nothing cleaner than that, is there?' He didn't mention the two gambling ships that were hull down on the brass waves just beyond the three mile limit."

Neither does Marlowe.

Marlowe deals with the crooked cops, one of who tells him, "'Them old cops get sap-hungry once in a while,' he said. 'They just got to crack a head. Jesus, was I scared. You dropped like a sack of cement.'"

The big cop blames the system. "Cops don't go crooked for money. Not always, not even often. They get caught in the system. They get you where they have you do what is told them or else.'"

The big cop claims that a cop can't stay honest even if he wanted to. "'He gets chiseled out of his pants if he does. You gotta play the game dirty or you don't eat.'"

Marlowe has the cop perspective explained to him by a waterfront wheeler named Red. "'The trouble with cops is not that they're dumb or crooked or tough, but that they think just being a cop give them a little something they didn't have before.'"

As for the predictable villains, according to Marlowe, like the gangster who owns the gambling ships, "'they didn't get there by murdering people. They got there by guts and brains--and they don't have the group courage the cops have either. But above all they're business men. What they do is for money. Just like other business men. Sometimes a guy gets badly in the way. Okey. Out. But they think plenty before they do it.'"


Reading Farewell, My Lovely brings memories of Huckleberry Finn swimming to the surface. In Chapter 32, Huck comes to the Phelps' cotton plantation and pretends to be their cousin Tom. To explain to his "relation" why his
"cousin Tom" hadn't arrived days earlier, Huck fabricates a story that his boat had gone aground.

"We blowed out a cylinder-head."

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

"No'm. Killed a nigger."

"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

Is Huck a racist?

Is Marlowe a racist?

By contemporary standards, of course they are.

But for their times, both are paragons of progressive thinking. And what is politically incorrect today may be historically correct.

# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
# majordomo@icomm.ca.  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 30 Aug 2001 EDT