Monday, July 30, 2018

The Man Who Would Be Marlowe

In response to my CrimeReads piece of last Thursday, which looked at how other writers have employed Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe in their fiction since the death of his creator, Raymond Chandler, back in 1959, L.A. author-critic Dick Lochte wrote this comment on the site:
Great overview of the many takes on Marlowe. There are at least two appearances of the old boy in other P.I.s’ books: John Shannon’s The Orange Curtain [2001] has P.I. Jack Liffey meet a cantankerous Marlowe complaining about Chandler’s misrepresentation of him. And Charles Alverson’s Joe Goodey meets Marlowe in his office in an old San Francisco building, in, I think, Goodey's Last Stand [1975], though it could have been book two, Not Sleeping, Just Dead [1977]. In any case, their aged Marlowes seem quite a bit more Chanderlesque than [Lawrence] Osborne’s [in the new Only to Sleep].
I appreciate Lochte’s kind words about my work, and wish I’d had space enough in CrimeReads to examine some of those Marlowe cameos he refers to. As it was, I did the best I could within a reasonable word count, and in the end actually sacrificed mention of a fourth book that featured Marlowe’s creator as a central player: William Denbow’s Chandler (1977), a broadly panned tale that found Chandler protecting Dashiell Hammett from death threats.

I also left out another short story starring Marlowe, this one by Julian Symons, a British mystery writer and renowned chronicler of crime fiction. Titled “About the Birth of Philip Marlowe,” it appears in Symons’ beautifully illustrated 1981 release, Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations (Abrams). Symons’ intent was to put forth new cases starring some of this genre’s best-known sleuths—Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Jules Maigret, and of course Marlowe—as well as imagine further complications to those characters’ histories. (The most novel sucy “revelation” might be that Ellery Queen had an intellectually keen younger brother!) In several instances, Symons integrates himself into his narratives, playing the role of persistent interviewer. “About the Birth of Philip Marlowe,” the last offering in these pages, is just such a yarn.

The chapter commences with Symons being led—thanks to some of Chandler’s letters he had acquired from a local bookseller—to the rather shabby downtown L.A. office of a private investigator whose name he never revels. Symons notes that this gumshoe has “a reputation for being honest and highly independent,” and that “he was unmarried, had an office in the right area, was the right age. Everything I found out suggested that he was the original of Marlowe.” Symons goes on to describe his subject further:
Of course he was older than the Marlowe of the books, something between fifty and sixty, but still a handsome man. … When I saw him I understood why Chandler hadn’t been so far off the mark when he said that Cary Grant would have been the right screen Marlowe for looks, because this man had the kind of sophistication and style you associate with Grant. Yet behind that sophistication he was unmistakably tough, and he also looked rather world-weary and cynical. Robert Mitchum? Yes, if you can imagine a cross between Mitchum and Grant, that would be about right. None of the other screen portrayals came anywhere near his physical appearance. Bogart was too small, and the others were just wrong.
This P.I. is reluctant to confirm that he was Chandler’s model for Marlowe, and he refuses to allow Symons to tape-record their conversation. But after some haggling over what the author will pay for his biographical information, the P.I. finally opens up some about his childhood in Santa Rose, California, north of San Francisco; his parents (a father who was a traveling salesman, a mother who was a drunk and died in a sanatorium); the couple of years he spent studying at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon; a succession of jobs (freight clerk, insurance claims investigator, etc.) that led to his working with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office (a job from which he was eventually dismissed for insubordination); and his leap into the lonely life of a shamus. When Symons asks whether the story about him marrying newspaper heiress Linda Loring was true, the P.I. “threw back his head and laughed.” “I was never so lucky,” he explains. “Linda was real enough, although of course that wasn’t her name and I’m not giving you any real names. We made some bedsprings creak, and if I’d played my cards right there could have been orange blossom and confetti, but I never had played my cards right when money was around, and I guess now I never will.”

(Above) Rhode Island-born artist Tom Adams was responsible for this image of the P.I. featured in “About the Birth of Philip Marlowe.” He also created the other illustrations in Symons’ book. Adams had previously painted the covers for Ballantine’s 1971 paperback line of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels.

As their conversation continues, the P.I. remarks on Chandler’s tendency to embellish the facts of criminal cases in his fiction and to give his protagonist literary airs. (“You got to understand Ray was a romantic. Some of the stuff he wrote about me was true, some he put frills on, some he just made up.”) And he finally recalls his initial involvement with Chandler:
The year would have been ’36, or maybe ’37, a few years after he’d been sacked from the South Basin Oil Company [formerly the Dabney Oil Syndicate] for being on the sauce too often. I guess he was beginning to get known as a writer—you’d know all that literary stuff better than me—but the thing was he didn’t know much, relied on books. Till he met me I doubt if he’d ever been face to face with a private detective.
The P.I. says that Chandler (a gent he describes as “smart, nervy, a bit of a scholar”) approached him for assistance with a young “dame” named Louellen Singer. It seems the writer—married but known to have been unfaithful to his wife in the past—had escorted Louellen to a gambling club called Jody’s, only to have her suddenly mouth off to the joint’s owner, Johnny Lacosta, and get them both thrown out on their ears. Chandler hoped the P.I. could smooth things over between Louellen and Lacosta, and thereby protect her from anything approaching retribution. The lovely blond Louellen, though, didn’t want the P.I.’s help—even though he quickly realizes she needed it: Lacosta had evidently been paying for her “snazzy apartment,” while she’d been betraying him with a handsome gangster-type named Lefty Hansen, “so-called because his left was his gun hand.”

I won’t spoil the maybe-Marlowe’s memories by revealing their conclusion, but this violent episode does sound like something that might have spilled forth from Chandler’s typewriter. Surprisingly, even after 37 years, it’s not difficult to find a copy of Symons’ Great Detectives (either through Amazon or AbeBooks) and read “About the Birth of Philip Marlowe” for yourself.

1 comment:

Art Taylor said...

So glad The Orange Curtain got a shout-out! Such a fine book, and John Shannon is such a fascinating writer. His series deserves more attention.