Culture

How Philip Marlowe Sparked Our Obsession With Crime  

Orrin Grey
4.3k views 12 items

Across seven novels and a scattering of short stories - almost all of which have been adapted to film and TV - Raymond Chandler created one of the most famous detectives in all of crime fiction and changed the face of the genre forever. Philip Marlowe, who has been portrayed on-screen by actors ranging from Humphrey Bogart to James Garner, Elliott Gould to Robert Mitchum, was something different than the detectives - hard-boiled and otherwise - who had come before.

He was a man of the people yet a sophisticate; funny and acerbic but ultimately lonely and a little tragic. He spoke directly to the audience, rather than employing a go-between, like Sherlock Holmes, or being described in third-person, like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. He has been compared to a modern-day knight, a comparison that he himself could have made, as he basically does in a passage in The Big Sleep. He moves a knight piece on his chessboard only to realize it was the wrong move and return it to its original position, saying, "Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights."

In the decades since Raymond Chandler passed, shortly after the publication of his seventh Philip Marlowe novel, the character has lived on in new books, films, and more. And his contributions to crime fiction have influenced the shape of the genre in ways that can still be felt today, in everything from TV shows to true crime podcasts.

Modern-Day Shows Expose Unseen Underworlds, Just As Marlowe Explored LA's Seedy Underbelly
Modern-Day Shows Expose Unseen... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list How Philip Marlowe Sparked Our Obsession With Crime
Photo:  Murder, My Sweet/RKO Pictures

When Philip Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood house near the end of The Big Sleep, he notes: "Outside, the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light." In Marlowe's world, even the most innocuous people and places have dark sides, and even sunlight can hide sinister secrets.

The LA that Marlowe moves through is both the one familiar to millions of American moviegoers from films of the era, and one that was unseen and unknown. A secret underworld of vice and corruption that ran from the meanest streets to the finest mansions. Marlowe's Los Angeles is a city of familiar landmarks yet built on greed and graft, on violence and deception.

Today, true crime podcasts peel back the thin veneer of civilization and show us the darkness that even sunlight can hide. That same obsession with looking into the shadows that drew readers to the exploits of Philip Marlowe all those years ago keeps us listening and watching today.

The Modern Procedural Genre Revitalized Chandler's Classic 'Whodunit' Formula
The Modern Procedural Genre Re... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list How Philip Marlowe Sparked Our Obsession With Crime
Photo:  Murder, My Sweet/RKO Pictures

The mystery story, as a genre, goes back a long way, and is one of the few genres to have a relatively clear literary genealogy. Beginning with Edgar Allan Poe's stories of "ratiocination" in 1841, the mystery genre has thrived on formula. Raymond Chandler's stories were far from the first to use the "whodunit" structure. It had already been going strong for nearly a century when he published his first tales in Black Mask magazine. But Chandler is one of the towering giants of the field, and the mystery and film noir genres would look very different without his sumptuous prose.

"The most durable thing in writing is style," Chandler once wrote, "and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time." That obsession with the preeminence of style is part of what set Chandler's writing apart from the rest of the people following the popular whodunit formula of the 1930s and '40s.

While that formula has evolved over the years, it remains as popular today as it was in Chandler's time. From "beach reads" and cozy mysteries to the investigative procedurals that make up some of TV's most popular shows to true crime podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder, the same kinds of tricks that Chandler was using to bring Philip Marlowe to life throughout the mid-20th century are still keeping us tuned in or turning the page today.

The No-Nonsense Leading Man Archetype Can Be Traced To Marlowe's Up-Front Pragmatism
The No-Nonsense Leading Man Ar... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list How Philip Marlowe Sparked Our Obsession With Crime
Photo:  The Big Sleep/Warner Bros.

The annals of crime fiction are filled with (usually white, frequently male) detectives who take charge and always get the bad guy - from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade to Columbo. But while there were numerous literary precedents to Philip Marlowe, his manner of directly addressing the audience helps to place him as one of the seminal progenitors of the hard-boiled detective as contemporary audiences have come to know them. 

Though modern shows and stories may have diversified their detectives somewhat, that aggressive, "masculine" pragmatism can still be found in the protagonists of popular shows like NCISCriminal Minds, and Law & Order, to name just a few.

In Today's Procedurals, Bureaucratic Red Tape Often Takes The Place Of Corruption
In Today's Procedurals, Bureau... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list How Philip Marlowe Sparked Our Obsession With Crime
Photo:  The Long Goodbye/United Artists

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels paint a picture of a Los Angeles as beautiful as it is rotten. As Marlowe digs into the seedy underbelly of the City of Angels, he finds corruption running through every stratum of society, from the richest to the poorest. This includes the people who are supposed to be stopping the kinds of activities he's investigating. The police and the press aren't merely willing to ignore crime and villainy - they are often active participants.

Today's procedurals may be less inclined to indict the status quo quite so directly, but they often find their efforts toward justice frustrated by bureaucratic red tape that slows down investigations or lets the guilty go free on technicalities. This may be because people today have come to accept a little bit of corruption as part of the price of doing business, and in some cases, corrupt bureaucracies are seen as better than inefficient ones, as demonstrated in the "efficient grease" theory, described by the American Economic Association.