Sunday, December 14, 2008

The New Relevance of Detective Fiction: The Big Sleep and Captialism

The PI novel has been pronounced dead many times, and it still manages to stick around. It is a genre that serves, among other things, as a critique of the excesses of American capitalism. It often pits the detective's code of behavior in contrast to the success at all costs values that lead to success in the marketplace. This contrast is especially relevant now that the economy is floundering and the extent of the incredibly crude and vast nature of Wall Street corruption, which is coming to light. New York lawyer Marc Dreier was found to have been selling fake promissory notes to investors. The only difference between Drier and a guy selling DVD player boxes full of bricks out of the trunk of his car is, well, I can't think of one. And let us not neglect Bernard Madoff, who ran a $50 billion ponzi scheme. He is no doubt the envy of boiler room operators everywhere.

This economic turmoil presents and opportunity to examine the relationship of the PI novel and its relationship to between the detective novel and American capitalism. In this first entry, I will examine Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, as it is in many ways the archetypal PI novel, and Marlowe's manner and value system have been imitated many times over.

Many, many detective novels involve a rich man, or family calling on the detective to clean up a mess. The iconic novel in this vein is, of course, Chandler's The Big Sleep, which begins with Philip Marlowe, "wearing [his] powder blue suit, dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with blue clocks on them." Marlowe informs the reader that he is dressed up because he is "calling on four million dollars."

The four million dollars Marlowe is calling on belongs to one General Sternwood. Despite his title and his wealth, however, Sternwood is weak. "a cripple paralyzed in both legs with only half his lower belly." Sternwood needs the young, healthy Marlowe to deal with his family problems, which he is unable to cope with. His daughter, Carmen, has fallen prey to a blackmailer. In the course of cleaning up this routine depravity, Marlowe uncovers the true extent of the depravity of Sternwood's family. He, literally, finds out where the body is buried.

Significantly, Marlowe does not share this secret with General Sternwood, who is on his deathbead. Sternwood gets to die in peace. Marlowe bears that for him.
Sternwood's frailty and the wild, self-indulgent behavior of his daughters stand in contrast to Marlowe's youth, reponsibility and integrity. Sternwood, for all his worldly success, has failed as a father, and his daughters have nothing in the way of moral values or even common sense. Carmen is shown, in the end, to be insane. She is so self-centered that to reject her is a death sentence. She is the embodiment of success-at-all-costs values, and if she cannot succeed in seducing someone, then she tries to own them through murder.

In the marketplace, money is the goal. People start business to get money. Money isn't enough for Marlowe though. When Marlowe confronts Vivian Sternwood with evidence of her sister's crime, she offers him fifteen thousand dollars. The offer prompts a sarcastic response from Marlowe, who sneers,

" I'm a very smart guy. I haven't a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have is the itch for money. I am so greedy for money that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of cops, and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you'll think of me, I'll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up...With fifteen grand I could own a home and a new car and four new suits of clothes. I might even take a vacation without worrying about losing a case. That's fine. What are you offering it to me for? Can I go on being a son of a bitch, or do I have to become a gentleman, like that lush that passed out in his car the other night?"

Marlowe puts integrity above financial gain and Vivian, clearly unused to someone like Marlowe, quickly capitulates to his demand to put Carmen in an institution. Marlowe's refusal to take the money is a repudiation of the get ahead at any cost. If his main aim is to make money, then he surely would have taken the money. Marlowe is that most revered of Americans, the small business owner, and yet he would sacrifice financial security for principle. With this ending, Chandler lays down the groundwork for many PI novels to come, particularly the novels of Ross MacDonald, whose novels almost always involve wealthy families, hidden secrets and class tension.

1 comment:

Corey Wilde said...

What I like about Marlowe, as well as the many PIs he spawned, is that he has his own code of ethics. He doesn't expect others to live by his rules and he sure won't try to live by anyone else's, but he holds himself strictly accountable to his own code.