Raymond Chandler: A Matter of Disguise

The following essay was published in the journal Studies in the Novel in 1997 and the copyright remains with them. It is published here by permission and is not covered by a Creative Commons license. Under fair use terms you may quote from and use this essay for academic or educational purposes, but you must not republish it in any way without consent from the copyright holder. The original essay is available through various academic databases, including Athens. The full citation is here:

Routledge, Christopher. “A Matter of Disguise: Locating the Self in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.” Studies in the Novel vol 29, number 1., Spring 1997. pp. 94-107.

A note on the text. This academic essay was written in the early 1990s and the references and some of the ideas are beginning to seem a little dated. I should also say that because it was written by a PhD candidate who thought readability was for wimps, not everyone is going to find this easy going. I’m a reformed character now. It may be wise to give the date you accessed the version published here if you are citing it in coursework essays or elsewhere.

A Matter of Disguise: Locating the Self in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

By Christopher Routledge

Ihab Hassan’s 1961 book, Radical Innocence1 attempts to describe the changing relations between the hero of American fiction and the world he inhabits.2 Hassan interests himself, in the early part of his book, with an examination of the extent to which individuals, acting collectively or alone, have vested in them by the prevailing cultural system, a paradoxical ability, if not the desire, to resist the influences of that very system. Referring to the situation as he sees it in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, Hassan argues that it was at that time possible to “locate man at a critical juncture of history”3 characterized, he implies, by a tendency, growing throughout the twentieth century, for human beings to be aware of their subordination to various systems of social control. Such an awareness challenges the myth that has prevailed in American culture from its inception, perpetuated by American capitalism, that the individual need only to strive to find freedom and success. Contrasted with the moral validation of the American Way in fictional narratives in which the hero and villain represent respectively American Good and un-American Evil, the realization of the impossibility of true existential freedom poses a considerable threat not only to the stability of the individual consciousness but to the cultural system itself.

Despite this apparently contradictory value system that, in Hassan’s view, divides the modern self, he is curiously optimistic, denying the possibility of an actual abolition of selfhood. Instead, rather than arguing that the individual in Western culture at the end of the twentieth century suffers a “growing alienation from his ‘true’ self” (Radical Innocence, p. 13), Hassan prefers the position that, in the face of new threats posed to it in the twentieth century, the self has undergone a process of “recoil” that, far from presaging its eradication has in fact prevented its destruction.

Hassan’s view of the modern self in the mid- to late twentieth century is perhaps best evaluated in relation to his view of the process of history, and the place of the self within its continuum. While the level of threat to individual consciousness, and the suffering that results, may not be any greater than at any other time, the peculiarity of the period, Hassan argues, lies in improved communications, which mean that, if the suffering itself may not have intensified, awareness of it most certainly has. Accounts of twentieth-century history are “nearly always the same: spirit is exhausted, civilization is over-extended, the individual must move on surfaces or be crushed inward” (Radical Innocence, pp. 11-12). As such, they fail to recognize the possibility that, far from being a linear process, history may instead be viewed as a cyclical movement of death and re-birth, as such being without final end. Rather than leading to a final cataclysm, the difficulties of the twentieth century may in fact be precursory to a period of reassessment and regeneration. The combined role of victim and rebel Hassan identifies for the contemporary self is explained in similar terms.

His view of the self, victimized by the experience of modernity, and the “grim events and strange developments of our century” (Radical Innocence, p. 11), is optimistic and radical, rather than capitulatory. The modern self, he contends, withdraws from participation in the world not, as might be expected, to be forgotten or eradicated, but for the purposes of preservation and retrenchment with the possibility of future re-emergence. The process of recoil Hassan proposes for the self, therefore, is conceived as an attempt to preserve, through isolation, those elements of the self most necessary for rebellion and reaffirmation of identity. Such isolation, because it involves a disengagement from the world, establishes for the self a condition of “innocence,” which, in the context of Chandler’s work, reveals itself as Marlowe’s idealistic belief in his ability to confront and contend with the variety of physical and mental threats with which he is faced. Furthermore, it is Marlowe’s willingness to act upon that belief that distinguishes him from the vast majority of other characters who are forced to act more or less gratuitously in order simply to transcend or “cope” with the experiences of modernity and modern life: “If Existentialism is a symptom of an industrial society in process of dissolution, the existential self which modern literature reveals is one that reaches out to new conditions while recoiling to preserve a radical kind of innocence” (Radical Innocence, p. 20).

The form of such recoil in Chandler’s fiction, more often than not, is determined by the form of the various enclosures available to the characters concerned. Indeed, Chandler’s novels provide both evidence of the process of recoil as it appears in fictional narratives–the focus of Hassan’s critique–as well as allowing for variety in the form, degree, and consequences of the recoil itself. By describing the change in the functions of enclosure in Chandler’s fiction, I hope to show here a further change, from Marlowe’s early belief in his ability to achieve self-definition in relation to the material world, to a growing realization in The Long Good-Bye4 that the validity of the distinction between self and world has been thrown into doubt.

Perhaps the most obvious of the several forms taken by enclosed spaces in detective fiction is the device of the “locked room”; that is, the space in which the crime to be investigated has taken place but which, as in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”5 is locked from the inside, with no obvious sign of how the perpetrator could have made good an escape. It is the role of the detective, in the case of Poe’s story, for example, to establish the way in which the killer managed to enter the room, commit the crime, and escape while the room in which the crime took place is locked from the inside and the window is apparently nailed shut. Dupin, Poe’s detective, functions much like a reader, making narrative sense from the data with which he is confronted. In order for the detective story to be successful, however, the data concerning the circumstances of the crime must be presented so that, while the reader may attempt to understand the clues, and decode the narrative, it must always turn out to be in a form that “the detective alone knows how to read.”6

Although Poe’s narrator describes the scene in the death room in some detail, there is an absence of any real sense of sympathy for or interest in the victims. John G. Cawelti argues that, in the case of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”

Poe carefully selects as his victims a rather obscure and colorless pair of people in order to keep our minds away from the human implications of their death. This seems an important general rule of the detective story situation. The crime must be a major one . . . but the victim cannot really be mourned.7

Instead, it is the process by which the detective deduces the method of killing and escape that, in Poe’s case, forms the main interest in the story for the reader.

By contrast, rather than a closed structure within which the detective knows the solution to the mystery must lie, in Chandler’s work, the crime upon which the detective begins his investigations is rarely that which turns out to be central to the plot. Fredric Jameson points out that in Chandler the detective works backward to find the crime, and it is always one that is long past, often having taken place before the action of the novel begins; made insignificant by its temporal separation from the action. Whereas the importance of the work of Dupin is given weight by his success in working out the course of events leading up to the crime, in Chandler’s work the opposite is true; Jameson argues in “On Raymond Chandler”8 that all of Marlowe’s perseverance and effort is wasted in the final discovery of a long-dead victim and a perpetrator he can either not bring himself to punish, or who escapes institutionalized punishment through death.

While variations on the “locked room” device do occur in Chandler’s work, they are rarely of much importance for the story as a whole. In The Big Sleep9, for example, the discovery of the chauffeur, Owen Taylor, drowned in the car he was driving poses difficulties reminiscent of the phenomenon. Marlowe and the police officers involved in dealing with the drowning speculate on the events leading up to the car leaving the road in a way that apes the ratiocinative processes of the “classical” detective:

One of them was fingering a place where the white two-by-fours had been broken through in a wide space. The splintered wood showed yellow and clean, like fresh-cut pine.

“Went through there. Must have hit pretty hard. The rain stopped early down here, around 9 p.m. The wood’s dry inside. That puts it after the rain stopped. She fell in plenty of water not to be banged up worse, not more than half tide or she’d have drifted farther, and not more than half tide going out or she’d have crowded the piles. That makes it around ten last night. Maybe nine-thirty, not earlier.” (BS, p. 29)

However, Chandler deviates from the conventions of the device by having his detective pay little direct attention to establishing the sequence of events leading up to the death; Marlowe does not operate in the materialist method of Dupin. Instead he looks beneath the objective physical causes to the underlying conflicts at work among the Sternwood family and their acquaintances. Taylor’s demise, therefore, is loaded with moral difficulties both for Marlowe and the reader. Following his rejection by Carmen Sternwood, his failure to protect her from exploitation in a pornography racket, and his murder of the pornographer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, it becomes clear that Taylor deliberately drove the car into the sea.

In the hard-boiled form of the detective story, the mystery has less to do with how the room came to be locked than with what it conceals. If, for the so-called “classical” story of detection to succeed, the detective and the reader must be concerned with the room itself-the solidity of its walls, the latches on the windows, and so on-in Chandler’s work, what John Cawelti calls the “human implications” of the crime are what really matters. The hard-boiled detective must break down multiple layers of enclosure, material or otherwise, not only in order to understand the sequence of the events that have taken place, but also the people involved; their drives, their personalities, and their identities.

Chandler’s version of the hard-boiled detective story, besides being concerned with the material separations and incongruities on which the puzzle element depends, also exposes the difficulties attendant on attempts to define reality and existence in a satisfactory way. If the interior in Poe’s fiction, is a place of intrigue, a closed system and a location for meaning, in Chandler’s work, as we shall see, interiors need operate neither as closed, unified systems, nor even as a repository for significance.

Tony Tanner proposes, in his book City of Words, a theory of the change in emphasis he sees in American fiction between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the purpose of which is to evaluate a shift from an approach in which interior spaces represent and allow freedom from external controls and promote a celebration of vitality and creativity, to one in which the enclosure offers only limitation, retreat, even entrapment, serving mainly as a protective shell defending its (usually singular) inhabitant from threatening, even overwhelming exterior forces. He contrasts the work of late twentieth-century American writers with, for example, Melville, in whose work closure operates as an enabling force; it is the insular nature of the society of the whalers on board the “Pequod,” in Moby Dick spatially constrained by the physical limitations of the dimensions of the ship, which in Tanner’s view enables them to travel the world’s oceans and confront the dangers they find there. It is significant that the crew of the “Pequod” are a group working together to exceed the limitations or frontiers that may appear to restrict them. For the hero of the hard-boiled detective novel, if he is to do anything at all, he–and more recently she–must do it alone.11

Tanner’s discussion charts what he contends is a contraction from “interior spaciousness” represented by the “cathedral” of the whale’s chest cavity, as Melville describes it, to the restricted and restricting interior of the motor-car. The automobile, as Tanner demonstrates, provides us with an ideal symbol for the retreat of individuals in the twentieth century not only from the external, physical world but also from the participative, vibrant, socialized interior spaces that he believes are representative of earlier literary and cultural forms.

Like the “Pequod” in Melville’s novel, the automobile can operate as an enabling, protective force; it offers characters in a novel protection from the elements and concealment from the scrutiny of others-a small private space in a crowded city-but also an enclosing shield of glass through which the outside world is mediated. At the other extreme, and more relevant to us here, is the more sinister possibility Chandler offers in an early story, “Nevada Gas,” that an enclosed space may operate equally as either a defensive fortress or a prison:

It was very hot in the car. The windows were all shut and the glass partition behind the driver’s seat was shut all the way across. The smoke of Hugo’s cigar was heavy and choking …

Candless scowled and reached out to lower a window. The window lever didn’t work. He tried the other side. That didn’t work either. . . A sick, incredulous smile broke over Hugo’s broad moon face.

The driver bent over to the right and reached for something with his gloved hand. There was a sudden sharp hissing noise. Hugo Candless began to smell the odour of almonds.12

The gassing of the lawyer-politician Hugo Candless with cyanide in the back of a specially adapted copy of his own limousine runs contrary to the usual view of the car as a familiar object offering freedom of movement and the advantages of a mobile home from home. However, it is consistent with Chandler’s later portrayal of Marlowe’s increasingly absurd commitment to participation in the world as opposed to withdrawal from it that Candless’s murder is made possible by his belief in the inviolability of the protective structures he has built around himself, as manifested in his willingness to enter the “death-car” believing it to be his own. Tanner describes the way in which the American hero of the twentieth century realizes that retreat into the self results only in annihilation-a lesson Ahab learns too late-and that “at the centre of the house of consciousness is the house of death.”13

In The Big Sleep, the domination of the car that has recently been dragged from the sea, over its dead driver, General Sternwood’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, bolsters the point. Taylor is in a car that ordinarily would be far beyond his financial and social reach, a fact that could equally apply to his relationship with Carmen Sternwood, the younger daughter of Marlowe’s rich client. It becomes for him a sparkling, if slightly battered mausoleum that, rather than celebrating the earlier vigor and importance of the corpse it contains, serves only to emphasize its insignificance. The physical damage to both the car and its dead occupant is described in similarly objective terms, but while the car retains some semblance of the connection between its appearance and its function, Chandler emphasizes the ontological change Taylor has undergone in the transition from life to death:

The front bumper was bent, one headlight smashed, the other bent up but the glass still unbroken. The radiator shell had a big dent in it, and the paint and nickel were scratched up all over the car. The upholstery was sodden and black. None of the tyres seemed to be damaged.

The driver was still draped around the steering post with his head at an unnatural angle to his shoulders. He was a slim dark-haired kid who had been good-looking not so long ago. Now his face was bluish white and his eyes were a faint dull gleam under the lowered lids and his open mouth had sand in it. (BS, pp. 28-29)

The closeness of the link between the inanimate object and the human operator is drawn still closer by the way in which Chandler uses the automobile to signify the identity as well as the status of characters in his novels. In the case of Owen Taylor the disjuncture between object and operator in life can only end in death.

The link between the automobile and its owner is evident in The Big Sleep in its least complicated form, however, in the case of the hired killer, Lash Canino, the only person Marlowe ever kills. Canino can be identified by his brown clothes and brown car: “Short, heavy set, brown hair, brown eyes, and always wears brown clothes and a brown hat. Even wears a brown suede raincoat. Drives a brown coupe. Everything brown for Mr Canino” (BS, p. 102). Later, Marlowe is able to find Canino simply by finding his car: “A car stood on the gravel drive in front [of the house]. It was dark and indistinct, but it would be a brown coupe and it would belong to Mr Canino” (BS, p. 112). Surprisingly, for a culture of which the symbolic presence of the automobile is an integral part, Marlowe seems the only character who is aware of these possibilities. Canino in particular seems quite unaware that he has left such an effective guide to his identity parked outside. Canino’s car, Marlowe tells us, “squatted peacefully in front of the narrow wooden porch” (BS, p. 111) and having struggled inside (he is handcuffed) he is able to lure Canino out of the house by starting the motor: “I was shivering now, but I knew Canino wouldn’t like that last effect. He needed that car badly” (BS, pp. 122-23). Beyond being a simple clue to his identity, therefore, Canino’s car allows Marlowe to threaten the man himself. The brown coupe is both the gunman’s means of escape, and the cause of his undoing, being an obstacle behind which Marlowe can wait until Canino has emptied his gun into it before stepping out to shoot and kill him.

Much of the definition of Marlowe and other characters depends on their relation to the objects by which they are surrounded. The most often cited example of this in Chandler’s work is probably Vivien Regan’s so-called “boudoir” that suggests her emotionally detached approach to relations with others, particularly Marlowe, and over the disappearance and death of her husband: “ivory drapes tumbled extravagantly on the floor and the white carpet from wall to wall. A screen star’s boudoir, a place of charm and seduction, artificial as a wooden leg. It was empty at the moment. The door closed behind me with the unnatural softness of a hospital door” (BS, p. 135). The link between characters and the objects by which they are surrounded, is not, in Chandler, one of straightforward representation of the realist kind, however. The quietness and sterility of Vivien Regan’s room, therefore, do not simply reflect her own calculating frame of mind, but are actually a projection of her character. We are told nothing about her directly, but must learn about her, as Marlowe does, through an interpretation of the objects by which she is surrounded. In his 1993 essay, “The Synoptic Chandler,” Jameson takes up the point: “the character type is itself predicated on [the relative gap or tension between character and setting]. Unlike Balzac, for example, Chandler does not make the dwelling immediately express the truth of the character who dwells in it.”14 As the example of the death of Owen Taylor shows, it is Marlowe’s task to reveal the relative gap between the public self projected by an individual through objects and the essential, private self it disguises, and to do so before its wider realization should have significant consequences for the individual concerned.

In The Big Sleep, the car Marlowe drives, and from which he observes the comings and goings at Geiger’s store, demonstrates both the ways in which the automobile is used in this way to define a character’s identity, and to show Marlowe’s vulnerability and unwilling accessibility to the outside world. The battered Chrysler convertible is synonymous with Marlowe’s own state: he is short of money, in relatively poor physical shape-his drinking alone must see to that-but nonetheless stubbornly refuses to succumb to the inevitable effects of age and misuse.

The novel is dominated by rain which, Marlowe observes is “too early in the fall” and the result is that the roof of the convertible leaks badly: “The rain drummed hard on the roof of the car and the Burbank top began to leak. A pool of water formed on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in” (BS, p. 19). In a process in which the identity and status of individuals is defined in relation to the objects that surround them, Marlowe’s leaky car would seem to have some symbolic resonance for his life as a whole. Much of his participation in the events in which he finds himself involved is involuntary. He can not avoid being drawn into investigations for which he is neither hired, nor agrees to undertake, just as he is unable to prevent the bizarre natural climate of Southern California from penetrating his hiding place.

While he is able to tolerate the minor physical discomfort caused by the rain with the help of a pint of whisky of which he uses enough “to keep warm and interested” (BS, p. 19), Marlowe’s reaction to Carmen’s uninvited entry to his apartment is aggressive. He considers her presence in his room to be threatening: “this was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home . . . I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer” (BS, p. 97). Marlowe’s difficulty is highlighted here: while he must defend the integrity of his private or essential self, his sometimes incompatible second function is to defend the privacy and integrity of his clients. While there is an obvious and specific sexual threat in Carmen’s naked presence in Marlowe’s bed, to which he responds when she has gone by tearing the bed to pieces, more significant is the general threat he feels to the integrity of his private self, represented here by his spartan apartment.

The example of Carmen Sternwood demonstrates the way in which Marlowe’s existence differs from those of other characters in Chandler’s novels. In contrast to the way in which Marlowe’s car fails to keep the rain out, for example, the level of Carmen’s carelessness is illustrated by her leaving the window of her car open during a rainstorm, allowing Marlowe, and the rain, access to its interior:

I reached a flash out of my car pocket and went down-grade and looked at the car. It was a Packard convertible, maroon or dark brown. The left window was down. I felt for the licence holder and poked light at it. The registration read: Carmen Sternwood, 3765 Alta Brea Crescent, West Hollywood. I went back to my car again and sat. The top dripped on my knees. (BS, pp. 20-21)

Carmen Sternwood, can be said to operate publicly, though not, as Ihab Hassan might argue, in what he calls the public realm. While her sister, Vivian, is able to balance her public persona with the needs of her private self, Carmen threatens to become estranged from the private, tending towards Hassan’s model of the crisis in selfhood he identifies in the late twentieth century. Carmen’s sexual presence, for example, is disengaged from any sense of personality; her posing for Geiger’s pornographic book racket is made possible only when she is intoxicated with laudanum.

Marlowe’s dilemma is to balance the level of his participation in the world with the recoil necessary for his survival, and to define a self beyond that determined by the fact of material existence. In comparison, General Sternwood, the aging father of Carmen and Vivian, by weakening his links with the world beyond the limits of his estate, and in particular, outside the greenhouse in which he incarcerates himself, runs the risk of losing his awareness of the value of existence itself. The weakening of such links between the “living world” and the self, Hassan argues, “leads it in the ways of violence and alienation,” ultimately to schizoid behavior. Conversely, a total “immersion in the otherness of things,” as in the case of Carmen Sternwood, whose naive submission to her own materiality frees her from responsibility for her own physical existence and the existences of others, has its conclusion in an equally catastrophic “alienation from the self.”‘5

It is precisely in fear of the Other-total loss of selfhood-that the modern conscience has fallen back on its internal resources. The schizophrenic goes too far in that direction, the rebel-victim remains in the field of our vision.16

The “outer” life of objects and surroundings, implies the existence of, though remaining unconnected to, that which is enclosed. Jameson reiterates this point in relation to Chandler’s fiction: “Whatever the objects mean . . . they also outline a space of a specific type which can be empty or contain a presence.”‘7 What Chandler describes, however, is not simply a division between those, like Carmen, who, through naivete or misguided rebellion allow their interior selves to be exposed and exploited and others, like Marlowe, who strive to protect that “interior” existence, against unfavorable odds, and fail. The Long Good-Bye goes further towards undermining the assumptions of the “clue-puzzler” type, the format of which implies an ability to determine truths from a fixed and therefore assimilable structure of objects and events. Here, Marlowe acknowledges not only the implausibility of the ratiocinative method on the grounds that relevant clues rarely present themselves as such, but also his own limitations as a single operator in a large and rapidly changing urban setting:

No matter how smart you think you are, you have to have a place to start from; a name, an address, a neighbourhood, a background, an atmosphere, a point of reference of some sort. All I had was typing on a crumpled yellow page that said, “I do not like you Dr. V. But right now you’re the man for me.” With that I could pin-point the Pacific Ocean, spend a month wading through lists of half a dozen county medical associations and end up with the big round O. (LG-B, p. 94)

Like a conventional “locked room” mystery, The Big Sleep to some extent does depend upon the assumption that the truth is present and detectable, even while it is concealed or disguised by enclosures. In Poe’s story, the enclosure takes the form of an actual locked apartment, while in The Big Sleep, as we have seen, it more often consists in the layers of meaning deriving from the accumulated objects by which characters surround themselves. The conventional view of the “hard-boiled” form is that it attempts to uncover truths about American reality, what David Smith calls the “tarnished metal beneath the glittering paint.”18

In The Long Good-Bye, however, the degree to which Marlowe is convinced of his ability to fulfil this aim of discovering immutable truths about reality and identity is much weakened. While the novel does function quite successfully as a detective story, involving Marlowe in the usual quota of murder and intrigue, the detective’s main concern is not, as in earlier novels, with uncovering a long-forgotten crime, but with establishing the identity of Terry Lennox, a figure whose influence touches each of the apparently unrelated sub-plots in which Marlowe is involved. If Marlowe’s motivation for continuing to act in The Big Sleep is his commitment to defending the essential selves of those he finds under threat, in The Long Good-Bye Lennox undermines not only his efforts to make that defence, but also his assumptions about the existence of that which he is defending.

While Marlowe’s apartment in The Big Sleep is sparsely furnished, it does contain enough of his personal effects to imply his presence; the chess set with a problem laid out, or the bottle of Scotch. By contrast, Lennox’s room is significant for its lack of significant objects:

There wasn’t a photograph or a personal article of any kind in the place. It might have been a hotel room rented for a meeting or a farewell, for a few drinks and a talk, for a roll in the hay. It didn’t look like a place where anyone lived. (LG-B, p. 8 )

The lack of identifying features in Lennox’s room points to the wider theme of his own lack of fixed identity; his barriers to anonymity being a big scar on his face, dating back to the war, and his striking white hair. As Paul Marston, Lennox fought in Norway during World War Two and was injured and captured while attempting to dispose of an unexploded shell from the foxhole in which he and several other soldiers were sheltering. Moving to Los Angeles via New York after the war, he adopted the name of Lennox and married a millionairess. When she is murdered, Lennox, as the obvious suspect, flees to Mexico, and reinvents himself once more as a Mexican, Senor Maioranos, before disappearing altogether.

From the beginning of the novel Marlowe is drawn to Lennox because he sees in him a kindred spirit. His basis for such a belief is by his own admission, not a strong one: “there was something about the guy that got to me. I didn’t know what it was unless it was the white hair and the scarred face and the clear voice and the politeness. Maybe that was enough” (LG-B, p. 9). Knowledge of Lennox’s wartime selflessness seems to confirm Marlowe’s feelings, but he is to be disappointed. Instead, Lennox conforms with Tony Tanner’s model for the American persona under threat in the late twentieth century: “he drops out of the reality shared by everyone around him, into a sort of absent consciousness beyond all identities and names.”19 He is “in the world yet not of the world, sampling the peculiarities of place yet cabined off from the sadness of place.”20

At their final meeting, Marlowe describes Lennox’s long good-bye from his sense of self:

“For a long time I couldn’t figure you at all. You had nice ways and nice qualities, but there was something wrong. You had standards and you lived up to them, but they were personal. They had no relation to any ethics or scruples . . . You’re a moral defeatist. I think maybe the war did it to you and again I think maybe you were born that way.” (LG-B, p. 319)

The difficulty Marlowe faces in The Big Sleep lies in restoring the balance between public and private worlds. Despite his sense of guilt at having concealed her murder of Rusty Regan, Marlowe considers himself to have acted honorably in enabling Carmen Sternwood to receive psychiatric treatment, thereby protecting her and her father from the public ordeal of a trial. He is also, perhaps, slightly envious of Regan, who, in death, is relieved of the need to make such choices. In The Long Good-Bye, by contrast, attempts to retain the distinction between public and private are considered “old-fashioned.” Linda Loring, the daughter of newspaper magnate Harlan Potter, tells Marlowe, for example, that her father has

“very old-fashioned ideas about his privacy . . . He is never photographed, he never gives speeches, he travels mostly by his own car or in his own plane with his own crew. But he is quite human for all that.” (LG-B, pp. 140-41)

Figures like Harlan Potter, who seek to preserve a private existence, appear increasingly anachronistic. Marlowe realizes that the degree of Potter’s retreat from public life is possible only because of his wealth and chides him for his assumption that his privacy is more worthy of preservation than anyone else’s. The long burst of polemic Potter delivers to Marlowe rails against mass production, in which the presentation of objects becomes more important than the objects themselves. His speech is a vocalization of the central difficulty of the novel in its representation of mass culture and social life in which the individual’s identity becomes only that which is projected onto the public sphere:

“We have the whitest kitchens and the most shining bathrooms in the world. But in the lovely white kitchen the average American housewife can’t produce a meal fit to eat . . . We make the finest packages in the world, Mr Marlowe. The stuff inside is mostly junk.” (LG-B, pp. 198-99)

Unlike Potter–a re-creation in still more embattled form of General Sternwood–Marlowe does not find all of the products of mass production to be of inferior quality, though he too remains convinced of the existence of an essential human self quite independent of objects of display. His commitment to such a belief in The Long Good-Bye, however, is severely shaken; the novel is overshadowed more than any other by images of emptiness and futility. The schizoid behavior of Carmen Sternwood, who is unable to communicate her feelings of rejection except through killing, that is, through acting only on materiality, represents the beginnings of Chandler’s attempt to explore the identity and status of the individual in the twentieth century. In The Long Good-Bye, Marlowe is increasingly aware of the meaninglessness of his task, not, as Jameson suggests, because some long forgotten crime makes his restoration of the distinction between public and private, of an old order, worthless, but because the opposition itself is no longer feasible. Rather than implying, therefore, a concealed presence, the surface life of objects has become all that there is. Marlowe’s description of life in jail demonstrates this point. There, stripped of material belongings, he finds himself unable to communicate; the objects by which even he defines himself turn out to conceal only absence: “In another cell you might see a man who cannot sleep or even try to sleep. He is sitting on the edge of his bunk doing nothing. He looks at you or doesn’t. He says nothing and you say nothing. There is nothing to communicate” (LG-B, p. 45).

Similarly, at the end of the novel, Terry Lennox describes his own emptiness. Marlowe’s faith throughout the novel that Lennox might be possessed of a personality with which he can engage is misjudged and the contrast between them becomes clear. Whereas Marlowe continues to struggle to balance private with public, Lennox, as the novel progresses, makes several attempts to obscure or erase his identity and his past. Unlike Carmen Sternwood whose past, in the form of Rusty Regan, the man she has murdered, trails behind her until it is discovered-and uncovered-by Marlowe, Lennox succeeds in losing contact with his, existing, in the end, in his materiality alone. Marlowe tells him:

“It’s just that you’re not here any more. You’re long gone. You’ve got nice clothes and perfume and you’re as elegant as a fifty-dollar whore.”

“That’s just an act,” he said almost desperately.

“You get a kick out of it don’t you?”

His mouth dropped in a sour smile. He shrugged an expressive Latin shrug.

“Of course. An act is all there is. There isn’t anything else. In here . . . there isn’t anything. I’ve had it Marlowe. I had it long ago.” (LG-B, p. 320)

Finally, he disappears altogether: “He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway” (LG-B, p. 320).


1 Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961).
2 Hassan has returned to this subject in a more recent book, Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters (Madison: Wisconsin Univ. Press, 1990). However, his 1961 work is more useful in approaching Chandler because of its contemporaneity with and sensitivity to literary and cultural change in the 1950s, the context of Chandler’s later work.
3 Radical Innocence, p. 13.
4 Raymond Chandler, The Long Good-Bye (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953); edition used here (London: Penguin, 1959). Further references are indicated in the text with the abbreviation LG-B.
5 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings (London : Penguin, 1967).
6 S. E. Sweeney, “Locked Rooms: Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory, and Self- Reflexivity,” The Cunning Craft: Original Essays in Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, Ronald G. Walker and June M. Frazer, eds. (Western Illinois Univ. Press, 1990), p. 9.
7 John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1976), p. 81.
8 Fredric Jameson, “On Raymond Chandler,” Southern Review (Summer 1970): 624-50.
9 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (Boston: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939). Edition used here in The Raymond Chandler Omnibus: Four Famous Classics (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953; London: Book Club Associates, 1975). Further references are indicated in the text with the abbreviation, BS.
10 Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971).
11The issues of closure and the relationship between objects and individuals have been widely considered by cultural and literary critics and theorists in recent years: see, for example, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) or Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987). Tanner’s comparative approach to the use of closure in nineteenth and twentieth-century literatures, however, will serve here to confirm Chandler’s location in the context of a developing American literary tradition.
12 Raymond Chandler, “Nevada Gas,” in Smart-Aleck Kill (London: Penguin, 1964), pp. 97-98.
13 City of Words, p. 268.
14 Fredric Jameson, “The Synoptic Chandler,” Shades of Noir, Joan Copjec, ed. (London, New York: Verso, 1993), p. 39.
15 Radical Innocence, p. 31.
16 Ibid.
17 “The Synoptic Chandler,” p. 40.
18 David Smith, “The Public Eye of Raymond Chandler,” Journal of American Studies (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), vol 14, no. 3, pp.423-42. For an exploration in more general terms of Chandler’s treatment of the myth of Southern California see Liahna K. Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies,” Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Original Essays, David Fine, ed. (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1984), pp. 109-34.
19 City of Words, p. 260.
20 Ibid., p. 262.