RARA-AVIS: The Marlowe Paradigm

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 30 Nov 2002

On the last day of '30s month, it's appropriate to note just how influential Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel was on the PI sub-genre.

Marlowe was pretty much fully-formed when he debuted
(as a nameless detective who'd later be dubbed
"Carmady," then change his name to "John Dalmas" when he moved from BLACK MASK to DIME DETECTIVE) in Chandler's third short story, "Finger Man." And he set an almost immutable model that the vast majority of PI writers would follow slavishly once THE BIG SLEEP was published in 1939.

In the wake of Marlowe, virtually all fictional PIs would be:

1) Male

2) American

3) 30 to 40 years old (at least when the series starts)

4) Unmarried (usually single, often divorced, occasionally widowed, but virtually always unmarried)

5) Ex-cops

6) Who operated a one-man agency

7) Located in a large US city

8) Who told their stories in the first person.

Very few PIs who've appeared in Marlowe's wake fail to meet at least five or six of those eight traits, and a significant number, perhaps a majority, match the Marlowe paradigm in every single respect.

Prior to Marlowe, agency ops were almost as numerous as one-man shows, and there were perhaps as many PI stories told in the third person as in the first. PIs who did own their own businesses were as likely to have gotten their prior experience with a big agency as they were to have been official law officers. Married detective weren't all that common, but in the wake of THE THIN MAN, neither were they unheard of. After Marlowe, the first-person, bachelor ex-cop operating a one-man agency became almost de rigeur.

The most significant change in PI fiction over the last ten or twenty years has been the proliferation of women private eyes, but even they tend to follow the Marlowe paradigm in most respects. The most popular, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, follows it in every repsect save for being female.

To this day, I still think Hammett's the better writer, but there's no denying that Chandler's been the most influential.


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