Re: RARA-AVIS: Marlowe as racist

From: Chris Routledge (
Date: 30 Aug 2001

Frederick Zackel wrote:

>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."

I've always read this episode as Marlowe pointing out, wryly, the injustice of it all - hardly a racist sentiment.

>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."

This uses the language of the time, which definitely IS racist, but Marlowe is here clearly on the side of the gardener, a practical slave.

>Marlowe goes up against a self-proclaimed "Hollywood Indian" villain who
>by the name Second Planting. This villain speaks in guttural pig Latin,
>"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's comments about Mexicans and "Wops" I'll give you, but I think this just shows Chandler's (and Marlowe's) rather confused moral code. As for the "Hollywood Indian," I read this as Marlowe bemoaning the way all that he sees as pure, moral and good in America's past having been corrupted. That's not to say he isn't pretty nasty about Second Planting, but even the name suggests a manufactured "fake". I'm not happy with the way he does it, but this is entirely consistent with Marlowe's worries about the loss of "authenticity".

>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
>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.

Yes he does - right there.

I think the exercise of trying to put our standards on the past is ultimately hopeless. Sure, Marlowe is racist in his way, but he lived in unenlightened times. He didn't use the Internet either - that doesn't make him a technophobe. I actually think (and your final comment suggests you might agree) that Marlowe is actually quite enlightened overall. It's just that his agenda very often doesn't take into account the ideas of racism, sexism and homophobia that many of us have been weaned on. And why should it?

Cheers Chris

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