Raymond Chandler, in "The Simple Art of Murder," offers a definition of the hard-boiled detective which also seems to be a definition of man as empowered moral crusader: "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything," writes Chandler (14). As Philip Marlowe goes "in search of a hidden truth," he operates in an extra-legal space which affords him the authority to impose his own kind of morality and bring his own kind of order to the initial chaos of unconnected events. As partial (in both senses) as this order might be, Marlowe nevertheless manages to stay one step ahead of the police, holding his ground against them, often doling out information in order to direct their inquiries along the course that he chooses. At all times, he remains a private eye with a client who commands his loyalties: his investigations are conducted outside of the legal system.
My essay examines the destabilization of this extra-legal space in Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), and Chester Himes's Blind Man With A Pistol (1969) and Plan B (published posthumously in 1993) texts that clearly reveal Chandler's influence. (1) For Mosley's Easy Rawlins, and Himes's Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, the extra-legal space that Marlowe inhabits, which allows him to deal with the police on at least an equal footing and maintain his morality untarnished, is an idealistic myth that none of them can afford to buy into. For they operate in liminal spaces, between white and black worlds, between the world of criminals and that of the police. In contrast with Marlowe's extra-legal authority, Easy, and Digger and Ed, must struggle to combat the disempowerment and marginalization implicit in these liminal spaces. As black men subject to the abuses of a racist legal system, the detectives must be aware of their own vulnerability. In Digger and Ed's case, they are subject to obstructions and insults born of the prejudices and fears of a white chain of command. As for Easy, the pursuit of his investigation sees him beaten, threatened and nearly killed by racist white policemen and politicians, as well as powerful white and black criminals. While Easy manages to negotiate his way out of his fix by bringing some hidden truths to light, having surmounted his initial naivete and ineptitude, Digger and Ed struggle to make any headway, eventually relying on informed guesswork to unearth the hidden truth in Plan B. Rather than allowing Digger and Ed to wrap up the case, as the truth allows Marlowe to do against all odds in The Little Sister (1949), this truth destroys them: Coffin Ed is killed by Grave Digger, and Grave Digger is killed by Tomsson Black, the man who has brought America to the brink of a race war.
In this respect, Mosley shows us that Chandler's hero relies on an exteriority to the legal system, an extra-legal space which is only open to racially privileged white men. The apocalyptic conclusion of Chester Himes's work destroys Chandler's idea that a strong, clever man can subdue any force on the mean streets, if he works his way outside the system to the hidden truth. Though Himes asserts Digger and Ed's brilliance and diligence in maintaining the balancing act required to operate successfully in liminal spaces between black and white worlds, he demonstrates that their tactics are doomed to failure. Himes sees four hundred years of American oppression of black people as a pressure building, ready to explode into racial violence, which destroys both the liminal space, and with it any hope of racial reconciliation.
Philip Marlowe: Extra-Legal Knight Errant
Philip Marlowe, often considered to be the most influential of the hard-boiled detectives, is presented by Raymond Chandler throughout The Big Sleep (1939) as a peculiar kind of anachronism: he is a modern-day knight errant. …