Spinning Wheels: Thought and Motion in Raymond Chandler’s Fiction

By Sand Avidar-WalzerMarch 17, 2015

Spinning Wheels: Thought and Motion in Raymond Chandler’s Fiction

FIFTEEN PAGES into Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, a murder takes place.

We don’t see the murder: it’s merely a “dull, flat thud at the back of the place.” But we see the murderer. His identity is not a secret. And we know how the murderer escaped the crime scene — he walked out the door. Not only do we know how he got out, we know how he got in, what weapon he used, and what happened immediately after. We follow the events in real time. We have largely reliable access to all of the details. So what, exactly, is the mystery?

The modern detective story is often said to have begun with Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a classic example of a locked-room mystery, a mystery in which a crime was committed under seemingly impossible circumstances (doors locked from the inside, windows too small to escape through, stolen items too big to carry). The locked room is a classic motif of the detective story because it exemplifies the mystery’s primary question: namely, What happened? The narrative problem is the formulation of a logical sequence, the solution the reconstruction of a chain of events and a series of causes.

The blunt action that sets in motion the plot of Farewell, My Lovely might best be described as an open room mystery. The question Philip Marlowe confronts isn’t what happened? We know what happened. What Marlowe wants to figure out is why. Why would Moose Malloy, fresh out of jail, kill a man with his bare hands when there was a gun right in the room, then walk out and announce what he’d done to a room full of witnesses before walking off in broad daylight? Any way you cut it, it just didn’t make sense, and Marlowe had been in this town long enough to know that when things don’t make sense, they don’t make sense for a reason.

Reason is a crucial word in the history of the detective story. In the classic mystery, powers of reasoning allow the detective to solve the case. Poe uses the word “ratiocination” to describe the mental activity by which a brilliant detective puts together the pieces in a way that the other characters cannot. Poe’s Dupin, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Christie’s Hercule Poirot, both sees and understands the world differently from the rest of us. Dupin, speaking of the police, says to his unnamed sidekick, “Not trusting to their eyes, I examined with my own.” In the very first Sherlock Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes tells his sidekick, “You see, but you do not observe.” These parallel abilities, of seeing more clearly and reasoning more sharply than others, are the essence of the detective’s activities: they are what makes him a detective.

The distinction Holmes makes between seeing and observing is indicative of a fundamental division in the narrative structure of the classic detective story, between the interpretive activity of the detective and the descriptive activity of his narrating sidekick. The division of labor, one of them thinking and doing, and one of them watching and writing, is a brilliant solution to a tricky narrative problem, allowing Poe to describe the process by which the case was solved without spoiling the ending. The narrator-sidekick provides a reliable, continuous narrative viewpoint and steady, consistent pacing without giving the reader access to the interior of the detective’s mind and thereby ruining the surprise. The sidekick relates the events faithfully as the detective performs imperceptible acts of ratiocination, and, at the end of the story, the reader and the sidekick find out together what the detective has been up to all along; the sidekick is a stand-in for the reader.

This distinctive internal capacity of the classic detective has as its external correlate a characteristic removal from society, its institutions, and its quotidian concerns. Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Poe’s Dupin is a professional law enforcement official; they are men of leisure with exceptional skills, who on occasion loan out these skills to the police, and who conveniently have a friend on hand to document their adventures. The classic detective is a man whose superiority sets him apart from the world, whose lofty intellectual position allows him to see the world more clearly. He is famous for his ability to locate tiny clues, traces, shreds of evidence, and to piece from these fragments a chain of events. Nominally observing the same material world, the detective’s eyes see behind it a tightly bound web of causality invisible to more limited minds. Like the nefarious criminal mastermind who is his dark twin, the classic detective is removed from mainstream society by virtue of his cerebral capacities. They distinguish him; they justify a genteel bohemianism; most importantly, they are a part of him, internal to him, a personal quality like height or hair color. The classic detective is a genius hovering above society, the classic criminal mastermind a villain lurking below it, and linking them is the unbreakable thread of deductive reasoning. Society, in this context, is merely an incidental maze through which the thread of causality unspools. That’s why Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are able to solve crimes with ease wherever they go, and why they can go places to solve crimes; the classic detective, often a man of leisure, spent much of his time traveling and solving incidental mysteries along the way. Holmes even solves crimes that happen in other cities just by reading the newspaper.

Chandler’s hardboiled noir detective is a very different figure. To begin with, it’s not a special ability that makes Marlowe a detective. He seems mostly to be a detective because the city issued him a detective license and he needs the money. The classic detective wouldn’t be caught dead joining the police; Marlowe joined and got kicked out. Where Holmes’s sharp eye might pick up on a tiny piece of evidence and reconstruct from it the entire crime, Marlowe’s telegrammatic observations aren’t always quite as inferentially impressive: “A drawer of the desk was open at the man’s right. Inside it was a newspaper with a smear of oil in the middle. The gun would have come from there.” At times the only apt response to Marlowe’s musings would seem to be No shit, Sherlock.

The hardboiled detective’s lack of a sidekick has significant attendant costs to the author’s narrative repertoire, and one way Chandler solves this problem is by making Philip Marlowe not an isolated genius but an everyday schmuck. The infallible deductive powers of a Sherlock Holmes make error-dependent narrative turns an effective impossibility, but it’s not such a big deal if we hear what Marlowe’s thinking, because his thoughts really aren’t that impressive anyway. Marlowe himself goes out of his way to remind not only himself but also the reader of this fact. Consider this passage from Chandler’s first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep: “The smart thing for me to do was to take another drink and forget the whole mess. That being the obviously smart thing to do, I called Eddie Mars and told him I was coming down to Las Olindas that evening […]. That was how smart I was.”

Where the classic detective’s abilities are internal and somewhat divorced from his context, Marlowe’s crime-solving capacities are nothing but context, nothing but an attitude and a capacity to navigate the exigencies of a specific milieu, a product not of an internal capacity but of external relations.

We would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the year in which Farewell, My Lovely is set. There are few contemporary cultural references; Hollywood’s influence is everywhere as an industry, but we don’t have names of actors or films to help pinpoint the narrative time. No tensions or allusions in the novel hint at any broader sociohistorical moment, like the war consuming Europe at the time. There are few brand names; there are no full dates. We rarely even know what day it is. Marlowe is self-employed, and his time is not the steady nine-to-five weekday rhythm that would come to characterize American life after World War II. One nameless day follows another in a predictable cycle of tipsy afternoons and drunken nights. All we really know is how many days have passed since the whole thing started — even though it’s not entirely clear what “the whole thing” is, exactly. As Marlowe says to himself at one point in the novel, “I had no watch. They don’t make that kind of time in watches anyway.”

This vagueness, this drifting confusion so inimical to a Dupin, is Marlowe’s standard condition — and since Marlowe is our first-person narrator, it is also the reader’s standard condition. Just as the classic detective story tends to be narrated by an observer external to the detective, so too does the narrative perspective tend to be fairly continuous. The sidekick watches patiently while the detective works. Sometimes Sherlock Holmes disappears for a while, whether on a mission of fact-finding subterfuge or on a morphine bender, and we sit at home with Watson and stare at the door, waiting for him to return, but the narrator’s observational capacities are consistent and consistently reliable. The sidekick narrator doesn’t just serve to hide information from the reader; his perspective also gives the classic detective story its distinctive rhythm and narrative flow. The rhythm of the classic detective story is a tempo of a continuous consciousness. Holmes may indulge in the occasional bump of coke, but for Watson there are no binges, no hangovers, and no passing out cold. The same cannot be said for Chandler’s Marlowe.


Farewell, My Lovely is not a continuous, chronological narrative, but a set of fragmentary, discrete events with their own temporality and their own logic. In its episodic nature, the noir detective story, like so much midcentury American culture, bears the distinct mark of the dime novel and the pulp serial, each installment beginning with the conclusion of a previous adventure before segueing to a new one. The same is true in Farewell, My Lovely:

I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home. I never found him, but Mrs. Aleidis never paid me any money either.

If the continuous narrative offers the advantage of a stable narrative position even as the detective weaves in and out of the diegesis, the episodic first-person narrative instead demands a plausible mechanism both for breaking apart the segments and for moving the reader from one to the next. What we find in Farewell, My Lovely are two basic kinds of segues. The first is driving. Many chapters and scenes in the novel end or begin with a trip in a car, a movement between one location and the next. The second method that Chandler uses to get Marlowe from place to place is to have him pass out. Marlowe gets knocked on the head, he gets shot up with heroin, and he seems to drink himself to sleep (or stupor) on a fairly consistent basis. The rhythm of both the narrative and the plot is thus organized by two kinds of movement: automobile travel and brain damage. Cars and narcotics aren’t just set dressing; they’re the twin engines of the novel’s narrative progress.

In Farewell, My Lovely, cars take Marlowe from event to event in the physical world, while narcotics, and especially alcohol, take him from idea to idea on the intellectual and narrative level. Every time he gets in a car, he finds one more piece of evidence, or meets one more person involved in the crime. He has a hunch or a tip, gets in the car, finds something out, goes home, and gets drunk. And then, when he wakes up, Marlowe has usually put together the hunch and the clue and staggers to work with a hangover. He doesn’t need to hide Marlowe’s thought process from the reader because so much of Marlowe’s crime-solving doesn’t happen while Marlowe is thinking, anyway — it happens in what Marlowe thinks of as his “subconscious,” frequently while he’s passed out or asleep. The classic detective solves crimes because of his distinctive capacity for conscious reason; Marlowe reasons while he’s unconscious. If the classic detective solves crimes because of who he is, Marlowe solves them despite himself. In the classic detective story we have a continuous narrative with two different kinds of intellection — “seeing,” the physical description that is the narrator’s domain, and “observing,” the causal inference which is the detective’s. In the noir story there is only a single kind of intellection, Marlowe’s stumbling intuition, and two distinct kinds of narrative segments or movement between segments. In keeping with this, Marlowe’s mental activity is not a progressive deductive logic, which follows clues back in time, but a haphazard series of intuitive leaps that follows clues from place to place.

The classic detective is removed from society physically, returning to it only for specific investigative purposes, and superior to society intellectually, so he can see it as a whole, from an elevated position, and the combination of these two privileged positions enable the detective to solve the crime by allowing him to construct a chain of causal inference. The detective asks, What happened? And his intellectual and social positions allow him to answer that question by building a flawless series of arguments. Marlowe’s process is a much more visceral one. For one thing, he isn’t outside society. He certainly isn’t independently wealthy; he answers to clients, to the police, and to beautiful women he regularly stands up. He also doesn’t have the superhuman intelligence of Poe or Dupin. He’s just a gumshoe, following up on his instincts: “The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk,” Chandler has Marlowe tell us. As he says at one point, “Proof is always a relative thing. It’s an overwhelming balance of probabilities. And that’s a matter of how they strike you.”

In the shift from the classic detective story to the noir one, the deductive certainty of rationalism has given way to cumulative probability. For the classic detective, proof and evidence are two sides of the same coin: one leads to the other, one confirms the other, one demonstrates the other. In Marlowe’s world this is no longer the case. Evidence, in Chandler’s novel, is just the stuff that’s lying around. It’s scattered in different places, but all you really need to do is go get it. Proof, on the other hand, is a matter of perspective; what matters is not what happened, but rather which of the things that could have happened your experience leads you to think is the most likely. It’s not that Marlowe’s process is irrational, it’s just that the rationale behind it isn’t a deductive one. The prototypical locked-room mystery involves the detective’s ability to find evidence nobody else can see, which is exactly why I described Farewell as an open-room mystery: all the facts are right on the table. What makes the detective the detective, in this case, is a gut feeling, a lingering sense, a willingness to let things strike you in a slightly different way — what I would call an intuition or even a belief, as in, “Given all available facts, this is what I believe probably happened.” It’s all a question of probabilities, and how they strike you.

The hardboiled detective’s intuitive process is deeply linked to his immersion in society. Far from being an impartial observer, Marlowe is enmeshed in the world around him and has a very personal stake in the outcome of his work, however much he might pretend not to care and however much he might wish he’d never gotten involved in the first place. In fact, sometimes the world around Marlowe crowds in too close, and it’s generally in these moments of intense social contact that Marlowe breaks out the booze. The detective’s hardboiled exterior belies a complex emotional investment in the world around him.

Chandler’s fiction is absolutely inseparable from its setting: Chandler’s fiction is LA fiction, and the character of the city is as decisive to the plot as any of the novels’ characters. And the most important aspect of LA’s character, as far as this novel is concerned, is the fact that it is rapidly and unpredictably changing, not necessarily for the better. The transitional character of the city is registered for us from the very first sentence of the very first page: “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro.” We don’t know why the change is happening, we don’t know if it’s good or bad, we don’t know how things will turn out — we just know that there’s a dynamic process at work here: the block is mixed, and it’s not yet what it’s going to be. The changing character of Los Angeles is also confirmed by one Mrs. Morrison, a nosey neighbor, who says, “When I come here twenty-two years ago we didn’t lock our doors hardly. Now it’s gangsters and crooked police and politicians fightin’ each other with machine guns, so I’ve heard. Scandalous is what it is.” Marlowe’s status as a former cop corresponds to his primary gift as a private investigator — an uncanny sense of the way things used to be. LA used to be a safe town; Florian’s used to be owned by a guy named Florian. Like Anne Riordan’s father, cops didn’t used to be crooked. Moose Malloy used to be in jail, and, of course (SPOILER WARNING), Velma used to be a redhead. But the change that most characterizes the world Marlowe inhabits is growth.


As cities go, LA is a late bloomer.

Los Angeles was founded in 1781, but managed to stay a small town for a pretty long time. We often associate the American settlement of the Southwest seaboard with the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848 and lasted until roughly the mid-1850s. But in 1870, after the Civil War and long after the Gold Rush had died, the population of San Francisco was approximately 150,000, while LA’s population was still only about 5,000. The city of Los Angeles didn’t really start to grow until later in the 19th century. In 1876, the completion of the Transcontinental Railway, considered at the time one of the greatest engineering feats in human history, linked for the first time the East and West Coasts of the United States: Manifest Destiny had officially manifested itself, and there was no more frontier left to conquer. In 1892, meanwhile, oil was discovered in Southern California, and suddenly what had been the Western Frontier became a new world of big business — far from government regulation, the railroad and oil industries completely transformed Southern California. By 1900, LA had 100,000 residents; by 1920, 500,000; and by 1940, the year of the novel’s publication, the city of Los Angeles had a population of 1.5 million. So during the 22 years that nosey Mrs. Morrison lived in LA, the population of the city tripled, more or less, from 500,000 to 1.5 million inhabitants.

The relentless growth of the city’s population meant also a significant growth in geographic distribution, and indeed, in the first two decades of the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles consolidated into its municipality a dozen other incorporated towns, including, in 1910, the city of Hollywood. The city’s amalgamated character is reflected clearly in the conversation Marlowe has with Anne about her hometown of Bay City: “It’s probably no crookeder than Los Angeles. But you can only buy a piece of a big city. You can buy a town this size all complete, with the original box and tissue paper. That’s the difference. And that makes me want out.” Marlowe is a native of the complex, amalgamated city, the integrity and character of which are contingent on a complex balance of interacting and often competing interests.

In the pre-modernist imaginary, the city was largely a single creature, even when it was divided into classes or neighborhoods. These classes, these neighborhoods, were all a part of a single organic machine — “complete, with the original box and tissue paper.” Even fraught with religious or political tension, the city was a single social entity. Chandler’s LA, however, is a single setting but not a single place. The behavioral and ethical code that governs an oil baron’s mansion is not the behavioral and ethical code that governs an offshore gambling ship. Where the classic detective story depicts a world that, no matter how disparate or lawless on the surface, is bound by the unbreakable deductive laws of causality and necessity, the noir city of Chandler’s novels is a city in which the nominal municipal unity, nominally bound by a single code of law, is in truth a fractious collage of distinct environments. It’s a collection of social worlds, an assemblage of discrete individual social spheres each with its own rules, rulers, and relationships.

The amalgamated nature of the noir city renders inference less a process of applying infallible logical rules and more a process of building intuitive hopes on the basis of past experience. Marlowe’s crime-solving ability, like that of the classic detective, hinges on the nature of this world and on his relationship to it. The car rides in Chandler’s novel represent Marlowe’s constant movements from one social milieu to another, and Marlowe’s ability to move between them is closely related to the fact that he doesn’t truly feel comfortable in any of them; Marlowe moves from scene to scene but doesn’t truly belong anywhere. This anxious unease is not unrelated to the alcoholic blackouts that, as both narrative device and panacea, help Marlowe put together the confused pieces of the urban jungle he lives in.

Marlowe’s intuition, his crime-solving ability, is inseparable from his close relationship to this fractious social collage — he and the city have been through a lot, and they’ve been through it together, and Marlowe has come to understand the big city in all its complexity. Philip Marlowe is located at the heart of the 20th-century city’s relentless change, and the contradictory, competing, and often criminal elements that make that city what it is. In fact, it is the city’s complexity that makes Marlowe’s existence possible. The private detective exists because not everyone will talk to the police; the private detective exists because sometimes you need to work things through back channels; the private detective exists because Lindsay Marriott needs someone to protect him when he goes to a clandestine meeting with the representative of a gang of jewelry thieves. The private detective, and by extension the hardboiled noir mystery, exists because of the shades of gray that modernity exposes between the black and white morality that governs the classic detective’s world.

The classic detective novel’s basic narrative approach is analytic: it shows us a nominally unified and coherently functioning world in which something has gone wrong; the detective’s job, in this context, is to return this deductively airtight world to its rightful balance. The classic detective story tracks the restoration of social order. The setting doesn’t really matter. Society in the classic detective story is not a specific place in a specific part of the world so much as the idea of a neatly functioning, self-enclosed social machine, which the detective can correctly diagnose and return to its normal operations. Analytic, deductive, the detective seamlessly explains this entire world in terms of an internally consistent chain of causal relations.

Farewell, My Lovely, like the hardboiled detective story in general, is not an analytic narrative, and it is certainly not the case that all of the arguments and inferences in this novel line up into a single, seamless thread of logic. The novel is, instead, synthetic. It does not describe an ordered society in which change is a temporary deviation but rather a fragmentary, diffuse society, one no longer what it was but not yet whatever it will become. If the analytic narrative resists and corrects change, and the historical narrative describes change, the synthetic narrative unfolds in the wake of change, showing a fragmentary world struggling to understand itself. In the synthetic novel, there is no totality, no whole in which both the plot and the reader’s expectations can be safely anchored. No single chain of events, and no single thread of logic, can successfully piece all of the novel’s events and characters together into a single whole — neither into the predictable, static totality of the classic detective story, nor into the dynamic, sweeping totality of the historical narrative. Rather than a single unified order of chronological events or rational causes, it’s a network, a system, a collection of individual places, small local hierarchies, and unusual characters. And the detective’s purpose is not to restore the ideal social order or to represent the historical social order in microcosm, but rather to make sense of it. His voice is not the voice of logic but the voice of experience, with all the jaded disaffection that comes from knowing firsthand how senseless and self-contradictory a composite metropolis like Los Angeles necessarily is.

Chandler’s LA is a fragmentary world of discrete locations and events, and that’s why automobile travel is so crucial to the novel. The car links both physical locations in the plot and narrative events for the reader. If the implacable locomotive on its fixed track symbolized the continent-spanning, collective Westward expansion of an America that is vanishing, the automobile is the symbol of a shining, postwar America that is about to be born, and of the tin-canned anxiety with which the solitary individual will now drive themselves around in circles as they attempt to make sense of a morally ambiguous urban sprawl. The very same activity, driving around LA, not only allows Philip Marlowe to travel from place to place to survey the damage and study the changes, it also allows him to collect data and track the new, unknown, and constantly changing world in which he now exists. Marlowe’s hunches or gut instincts are the mechanism by which he lurches from fragment to fragment, and which he uses to just barely maintain his balance in a social order that is rapidly losing coherence.

The world of Farewell, My Lovely is a loose, strange assemblage of elements, objects, and people that have become somehow dislodged from their origin. Florian’s is still there, but it’s not a white joint anymore and Velma doesn’t work there any longer. Mrs. Grayle is blond now, but she didn’t used to be, and that’s why Marlowe isn’t quite able to predict her behavior — unpredictability in the noir detective novel springs not from the breaking of an otherwise normalized law but from events inconsistent with experience. It is the new and surprising, and not the illegal or disorderly, that threatens the integrity of the hardboiled detective story’s social order and produces anxiety. And the synthetic function of the hardboiled detective, as character and as narrator, is to assemble both for the reader and for himself some measure of coherence in a fragmentary world — a world of strangely dislodged people and objects floating around in an odd, timeless duration, a world that, like the America of the 1930s, drawing to a close as Chandler wrote, is no longer what it was but not yet what it is going to become.


Sand Avidar-Walzer lives in New York, where he is completing a dissertation on sexuality and ethics.

LARB Contributor

Sand Avidar-Walzer lives in New York, where he is completing a dissertation on sexuality and ethics. His Twitter handle is @SandAvidar.


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