The Forgotten Noir Detective
By Daniel PolanskyJune 7, 2022
Cassidy was a very rich man, a multi-millionaire. He had a grown up son. One night the cops were called to his home and young Cassidy was on his back on the floor with […] a bullet hole in the side of his head. His secretary was lying on his back[.] […] He was shot in the head, not a contact wound.
“Murder and suicide during a drinking spree,” Detective-Lieutenant Jesse Breeze replies. “The secretary went haywire and shot young Cassidy.” Marlowe disagrees:
You read it in the papers, […] but it wasn’t so […] and the D.A. knew it wasn’t so and the D.A.’s investigators were pulled off the case within a matter of hours. […] [I]t was Cassidy that did the shooting[.] […] [Y]ou didn’t want the truth. Cassidy was too big.
“Cassidy” was Ned Doheny, son of the oil baron Edward Doheny, at the time one of the wealthiest men in America; and the investigator who was pulled off the 1929 case was one Leslie Turner White, who served as inspiration for Chandler’s Marlowe, and whose autobiography, Me, Detective (1936), played a pivotal if largely forgotten role in the formation of American noir.
Like most of Los Angeles’s heroes, fictional or otherwise, White was an immigrant, born in rural Ontario, Canada, in 1903. The son of a Methodist preacher, he served stints as a carny and prizefighter before finding work as a ranger in Ventura County, California. White describes the experience in the opening line of Me, Detective: “The peculiar qualification that won for me, at the age of twenty, my first law enforcement position, was the simple fact that I owned a horse. Nobody thought to ask if I could ride the horse; if he had, I would not have landed the post.”
The patter is lighter than Chandler’s, but essentially this could serve as a thematic synecdoche of the subgenre. There is the same reserve and surface self-effacement — the noir hero downplays his abilities and sullies his motivations — but beneath that is a clear commitment to a moral code. White leaves his crucial point unwritten, allowing the reader to infer that had he been asked if he could ride a horse, he’d have answered honestly, irrespective of the cost.
After discovering that his job as a ranger consisted of protecting the hunting preserves of wealthy tourists, White became a county deputy, only to struggle once more with a role that included casual violence against drunks and indigents. White’s sense of ethics was abnormal and uncompromising, and set him apart from his fellow men. “Paradoxically, [deputies that engaged in violence] were kinder, more generous than I. […] [T]hey seemed to understand the moral lapses of people, whereas I condemned them by good, dependable Christian standards.” White quit once more, finding work as a photographer — he was responsible for identifying bodies from the St. Francis Dam disaster — before moving to Los Angeles in 1928.
He arrived at a turbulent time. L.A. was then the fastest growing city in the world, transformed by an oil boom and by the rise of Hollywood. It was also fabulously corrupt, ruled by a cozy network of politicians, financiers, and criminals. Known as “The System,” it was run by Charles H. Crawford, a.k.a. the Gray Wolf, a suave fixer who avoided publicity and likely inspired several of Chandler’s villains. But a wave of recent indictments had inspired a feeling of reform within the city, leading to the creation of an investigative force directly controlled by the district attorney’s office, an effort to circumvent the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles Police Department. Inspired, White signed on.
It was in this context that White would investigate the Doheny murder. Using then-cutting-edge forensic work, he deduced that the blood patterns at the scene did not match the carefully rehearsed stories of Doheny’s staff. Though White raised his concerns with his superiors, the district attorney’s office quickly closed the case. The city was as corrupt as the country, and the reformers as bad as the men they’d replaced. “I learned that there were two ‘monkey wrenches’ that could sabotage the legal machinery at will, brains and money.”
Increasingly it became clear to White that justice was a matter of power, or the lack of it. After a drunken, sadistic LAPD officer shot and killed a Mexican teenager in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, then framed a friend of the deceased, White had the officer charged with murder. But the victory proved hollow; the officer served a short sentence and was even rehired, while the boys who testified against him were jailed on trumped-up charges.
White’s career in law enforcement would go on to include a half-hearted stint in the anticommunist brigades (“I was never able to glean a concise definition […] but I finally concluded that a communist was anyone who did not agree with […] the Chamber of Commerce”) as well as an unlikely friendship with one of Al Capone’s underbosses (“[We] were much the same sort of marionettes. The same broad system pulled the strings with two hands — I danced to the right hand, while [he] danced to the left”). These experiences forced him to reevaluate the simplistic moral convictions of his youth. “Viewed from the front, a horse may look more attractive than when viewed from the stern — but he is still the same horse.”
The last straw came after White’s discovery of a prostitution ring led to the arrest of a well-connected multimillionaire (“it nearly always happens […] when a prominent citizen is taken into custody, he is never quite sure of the specific thing he is wanted for”). White became the protector of the procuress and chief witness in the case, installing her in his house to avoid the millionaire’s goons. Inevitably, his efforts to help her ended in vain — charges against the millionaire were dropped, and the madam took the fall.
Ten years before, I had been hired to bully squatters off a great territory of unused land. Now, as a trained detective, I was doing the same thing. I was becoming corrupted. True, I had never taken a bribe or betrayed my office, but the whole political system of which I was a part was rotten — and I knew it. I had started out in the belief that to be personally honest, to refuse bribes and gratuities, was sufficient; that it was the crooked individuals who corrupted the system. Now I realized it was the system which corrupted the individuals.
Disgusted, White quit the police force in 1931. At this point, he had already begun a second career as a writer of pulp stories. A chance meeting with Lincoln Steffens, the famed progressive investigative reporter, inspired him to write Me, Detective, released in 1936. It would prove to be his artistic and commercial peak. Curiously, White’s fiction shows little of his professional experience or his complex moral viewpoint. His work is conventional, even schlocky: uncompromising heroes shooting down black hats.
It would require Chandler’s specific genius to identify in White’s story some fragment of the zeitgeist, and to synthesize it into art. The two met at a gathering of West Coast writers for Black Mask magazine in 1936. The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first work featuring Philip Marlowe, would be published three years later. To map all the connections between White’s experiences and Chandler’s novels — Cassidy for Doheny, Sternwood mansion for the Greystone Mansion, Alex Morny for Guy McAfee — would be tedious, and in fairness to Chandler, White had a peculiar knack for being involved in many of the great crimes of his day. Still, the debt is indisputable.
Marlowe’s biography mirrors White’s (they are both immigrants to Los Angeles who worked as investigators for the district attorney’s office before quitting in protest), and they share the same rigorous moral code and sympathy for the unfortunate. For White, it was murdered teenagers and threatened madams; for Marlowe, it was Terry Lennox or George Anson Phillips. They are not identical, of course. Marlowe is the dark future of Leslie White, stripped of his innocence and chained to a moral code of impossible rigor.
White’s time in law enforcement left him convinced of the essential corruption of the American project but sympathetic to most of the people involved in it. His early certainties about right and wrong erode by contact with sympathetic gangsters and tragic madams, and his recognition of the broader structural reasons for their crimes. Marlowe lacks this capacity — witness the end of The Big Sleep (1939) or The Long Goodbye (1953). For him, any touch of sin is staining. In this, his heroism is akin to hubris, and despite his canonical ending, Marlowe’s fate is fundamentally tragic.
Happily, it was a fate White avoided.
Me, Detective has never been reprinted. To read it, one must journey to the bowels of the L.A. Central Library, leave an ID at the front desk, and take a seat at a pew with college students and the unhoused. It is a beautiful building and I enjoyed playing sleuth, but still I hope some wise publisher finds an opportunity to rerelease it. Leslie T. White is not Raymond Chandler’s equal as a stylist — who is? — but his contributions to the development of modern noir are substantial, and his commitment to justice was as uncommonly admirable in his age as it is today.
Daniel Polansky is a writer, baker, and advocate for the unhoused. He lives in Los Angeles. His most recent book is The Seventh Perfection (2020), and his website is danielpolansky.com.
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