Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Chandler's Waste Land

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Chandler's Waste Land

Article excerpt

You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

--T. S. Eliot (1919)

In The Long Goodbye (1953), Philip Marlowe finds himself investigating the murder of a woman whose own father, the reclusive, Hearst-like newspaper mogul Harlan Potter, wishes to thwart the investigation. Marlowe arrives for his interview with Potter in a Cadillac driven by Amos, the "the middle-aged, colored chauffeur" employed by the millionaire's other daughter (Chandler 606). Later, when Marlowe leaves the Potter estate after a strained and frustrating interrogation, Amos drives Marlowe back to Hollywood. Marlowe offers him a dollar tip, but when Amos declines it, he then dryly offers "to buy him the poems of T. S. Eliot." Amos, however, assures Marlowe that "he already had them" (614). This exchange, significant enough for Amos to recall it later in the novel is doubly remarkable for its replication of the longer conversation with Potter that has just taken place.

Let us turn to this conversation for a moment. To Marlowe's surprise, the millionaire's efforts to frustrate his investigation did not rely upon the strong-arm tactics he expected, but capitalized instead upon a cynicism that finds its witty, though morally defeatist, refrain in his later interaction with Amos. Potter's "tip" for Marlowe begins as a meditation on his own political influence that subtly gestures toward a choice between bribery or discreditation:

   I am not a public character and I do not intend to be. I have always
   gone to a great deal of trouble to avoid any kind of publicity. I
   have influence but I don't abuse it. The District Attorney of Los
   Angeles County is  an ambitious man who has too much good sense to
   wreck his career for the notoriety of the moment I see a glint in
   your eye, Marlowe. Get rid of it. (611)

Yet Potter soon digresses, justifying his desire to block Marlowe's investigation as a need to buy protection against the "shocking decline in both public and private morals" that modern democracy, mass production, and the scandal-mongering of his own newspaper empire have created. Marlowe, trying to match wits with Potter, refuses to take the initial hint. Instead, he satirizes Potter's desire to escape the very same "crass" materialism that has made him rich in the first place. Potter's isolationist desire, itself crass and hypocritical, betrays his overestimation of his entitlement as a millionaire: "You've got a hundred million dollars" Marlowe argues, "and all it has bought you is a pain in the neck" (613). Once Potter reiterates the threat of depriving Marlowe of his license, though, he can then patronize his "quaint line of business" and satirize Marlowe's own position of moral superiority in turn: "I think you're a pretty honest sort of fellow. Don't be a hero, young man. There's no percentage in it" (614). Exasperated by the millionaire's power to gain the upper hand as "Mr. Big, the winner, everything under control," Marlowe is rankled by Potter's privileged access to the fiction that it is not his money that buys Marlowe's silence, but his sense of values: his desire for privacy, his elitist disdain for capitalism. Perhaps it is because of his contempt for this privilege that Marlowe is destined to reproduce it. Thus, when Amos waves off Marlowe's dollar, his gesture unwittingly appropriates the moral superiority for which the detective has just been chastened. Marlowe's joke, then, is to offer him instead a token of more "lasting" value and intellectual uplift: the poems of T. S. Eliot.

Yet this incident is complicated by two additional factors. As a professional servant, Amos's refusal of the tip suggests less a "noble" refusal of payment than a rejection of its implicit insult. Marlowe's dollar would literally patronize Amos, implicitly securing temporary ownership of the services for which, presumably, he is already paid under private contract as a chauffeur. …

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