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The Long Goodbyes: Raymond Chandler’s Poetics of Disappearance and Loss

Benoît Tadié
p. 67-83


Les récits de Raymond Chandler sont fondés sur une logique de disparition et réapparition, dérivant de la structure narrative de la chasse à l’homme mise à l’honneur par les pulp magazines. Mais ces deux motifs sont faussement symétriques, car la réapparition entraîne une disparition plus fondamentale, défiguration ou perte irrémédiable de l’objet disparu. La logique du récit chez Chandler finit ainsi, de proche en proche, par dévoiler le vide métaphysique au centre de son univers romanesque. Après avoir décrit cette poétique de la disparition et de la perte, contrepoint noir de l’épiphanie moderniste, on cherche à l’interpréter à la lumière de plusieurs phénomènes : émergence de la société du spectacle, expansion de la métropole (Los Angeles) et vicissitudes du parcours de l’auteur.

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1If the epiphany, as a spiritual presence whose manifestation compensates for the nightmares of history, is one of the salient figures of high modernist literature, the works of Raymond Chandler—which one can regard as an instance of late, low-key counter-modernism growing out of the culturally disenfranchised pulp magazines—are characterized, on the contrary, by the sense of a spiritual absence, of an intense meaninglessness and "not-thereness". Indeed, the expansion of Chandler’s narrative world, in the twenty-five years separating his first story for the pulp magazine Black Mask (1933) from his last completed novel, Playback (1958), seems to have been accompanied by a progressive laying bare of the void at its core, as experienced and conveyed by the lonely, literate detective who narrates most of his stories and all of his seven novels. A similar process takes place within individual narratives, where it is articulated by the logic of disappearance and recovery on which their plots often rely. As reappearance or recovery is usually synonymous, in Chandler’s world, with a more insidious and more final disappearance, this logic is anything but compensatory: on the contrary, it articulates an Orpheus-like tale of compounded loss, an ongoing retreat of essences, whereby valued objects not only disappear from view but also recede into ontological insignificance. Thus, Chandler’s narratives conjure up a counter-metaphysics of absence: what they ultimately reveal is not the redeeming manifestation of a timeless plenitude but the gaping black hole of melancholy.

  • 1 "There is pathos, too, in the idea that a man who can write like a fallen angel should be a mere pr (...)

2Chandler, who was born in Chicago in 1889 of an American father and Irish Quaker mother, spent his childhood in England and his youth in Paris and London, where he had a short-lived career as an aspiring journalist and poet, before settling in Los Angeles in 1912. His conversion to hard-boiled writing, in 1933, was an unlikely move for a man of his background and experience. It involved a series of difficult choices, each entailing a corresponding sacrifice: writing crime fiction (whereas he had written poetry and literary criticism before WWI), for the popular pulp magazine market (instead of the more respectable and better-paying "slicks"), in a tough, classless American vernacular (instead of the Georgian manner which he had affected in his prewar London poems). As a consequence, and despite his growing critical recognition as a "serious" writer, Chandler would wrestle all his life with the nostalgia for the literary scenes and styles that he had lost by becoming an author of hard-boiled fiction. The same nostalgia would also haunt his crime narratives in subtle ways, underlying their sophistication and contributing to the sense that (to use Ross Macdonald’s eloquent image, identifying Chandler with his detective Philip Marlowe) he was a kind of "fallen angel" in the world of hard-boiled pulp fiction.1

  • 2 In these and later instances, the first date refers to the publication of the stories as serials in (...)
  • 3 These changes are well captured in Davis, 1990. Between 1910 and 1960, Los Angeles’s population gre (...)

3Chandler’s venture into the field of detective stories also involved another important choice: that of a setting, Los Angeles, whose surface had only barely been scratched by American writers before him. Most hard-boiled authors had focused on older cities with larger underworlds, such as New York (Carroll John Daly), San Francisco (Dashiell Hammett) or Chicago (W. R. Burnett), although Black Mask contributors like Raoul Whitfield and Paul Cain, whose impact can be felt on Chandler’s early stories, had already written two remarkable hard-boiled novels about Los Angeles: Death in a Bowl (1930, 1931) and Fast One (1932, 1932) respectively. But Chandler’s long experience of Los Angeles gave his stories greater historical depth than can be found in either Whitfield’s or Cain’s narratives, which are very much caught in their historical moment and explore a narrower geographical and social terrain. Between the time when Chandler first settled in Los Angeles, in 1912, and the publication of his last novel, Playback (1958), the city underwent massive physical and social change and became the second largest in the country.3 At the same time, its dizzying population growth entrenched patterns of racial segregation and resulted in social inequalities, environmental issues and ethnic violence that would cast a shadow over its much-touted reputation as the new El Dorado of the West. Chandler’s narratives would increasingly register his sense of alienation in this changing world as well as his longing for the quiet provincial town in which he had first settled in 1912, at a time when neither the film nor the aerospace industries existed there and when the mass migrations to Southern California had hardly begun. Thus, his urban vision differed from that of other Black Mask writers, who often celebrated the energies of modern American cities while tackling their crime scenes: Chandler’s, by contrast, was tied to a sense of general disfiguration and "phoniness", ultimately evoking the anthropological nightmare of a collective loss of character and identity.

4For all these reasons, the narrative trope of disappearance resonates with a specific significance in Chandler. It is not only central to his plots but also deeply imbricated with his symbolic world, expressing his vision of the fate of Los Angeles and of the mutations of American society. At the same time, it may also be read reflexively, as a key to his emotions vis-à-vis the changing metropolis and to his self-perception as an American writer of hard-boiled fiction, reborn out of the ashes of a former London poet.

Of manhunts and missing persons

5The hard-boiled revolution in detective fiction, begun by Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett in Black Mask in the early 1920s, drew much of its energy from the substitution of the hunt for the whodunit as the dominant pattern of a renewed, tougher genre. Breaking with traditional mystery forms, it downplayed puzzles and heightened violent action and conflict, displacing the genre’s main motivation from the interpretation of puzzling clues to the cleanup of gang-ridden towns (Hammett’s Red Harvest, 1927, 1929) or the chase for hidden criminals (Daly’s Hidden Hand, 1928), stolen objects (Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, 1929, 1930) or missing persons (Hammett’s Thin Man, 1933), in an unstable postwar world marked by murders, stick-ups, blackmail, double-crosses, corruption and other assorted kinds of criminal endeavour.

  • 4 Chandler always opposed the reissue of these pulp magazine stories, on which parts of his later nov (...)

6When he began writing for the pulps in 1933, Chandler made that world his own, painstakingly anchoring his stories into the context of Southern California, and—in keeping with the hunt pattern—increasingly relying on disappearances as the primum mobile of their plots. Disappearances are central, for example, in stories like "The Man Who Liked Dogs" (Black Mask, March 1936), "The Curtain" (Black Mask, September 1936), "Try the Girl" (Black Mask, January 1937) or "The Lady in the Lake" (Dime Detective Magazine, January 1939), all of which would later be "cannibalized", to use Chandler’s expression, in The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Lady in the Lake (1943) and even, much later, The Long Goodbye (1953), whose first page is lifted almost literally from "The Curtain" (the rest of the story having already been absorbed into The Big Sleep). As these early stories disappeared into the novels,4 the disappearances at their core became central to the latter. Indeed, in all of Chandler’s seven novels, disappearances provide the main impetus for Philip Marlowe’s investigations, as in the cases of the vanishing Rusty Regan (The Big Sleep), Velma Valento (Farewell, My Lovely), Linda Conquest (The High Window, 1942), Crystal Kingsley and Muriel Chess (The Lady in the Lake), Orrin P. Quest (The Little Sister, 1949), Terry Lennox (The Long Goodbye) and Betty Mayfield (Playback, 1958).

  • 5 "If I couldn’t still feel the lure of the man-hunt I wouldn’t be in the game." (Daly 134)

7In such instances, as opposed to earlier hard-boiled writers who had stressed the thrills and "lure of the man-hunt",5 Chandler tends to focus on the "missingness" of missing persons, emphasizing the broken ties and broken hearts which their abrupt disappearances have left behind. Thus, in The Big Sleep, although General Sternwood does not initially hire Philip Marlowe to find Rusty Regan, his missing son-in-law, he nevertheless acknowledges that Regan was the "breath of life" to him and expresses the hope that he’ll "hear from him one of these days" (Chandler 1939, 594, 595). This reticent admission of grief, apart from suggesting that the story may really be about Regan’s disappearance, sets its emotional keynote. It adumbrates the pathos of Marlowe’s memorable meditation, in the novel’s closing lines, on the suffering and degradation of people who survive the violent deaths of their loved ones. The same blue note is heard in Chandler’s subsequent novels, notably in Farewell, My Lovely, where Marlowe empathizes with Moose Malloy’s obsessive quest for his long-lost love, Velma Valento, and in The Long Goodbye, where Terry Lennox’s elaborate vanishing act is given a nostalgic aura by the ritual of separation that, in a letter accompanied by a $5,000 note, he requests Marlowe to perform:

So, forget it and me. But first drink a gimlet for me at Victor’s. And the next time you make coffee, pour me a cup and put some bourbon in it and light me a cigarette and put it beside the cup. And after that forget the whole thing. Terry Lennox over and out. And so goodbye. (Chandler 1953, 487)

8As Marlowe complies with Lennox’s request, his narrative adopts a Hemingwayan tone of intensely repressed emotion:

I did what he asked me, sentimental or not. I poured two cups [of coffee] and added some bourbon to his and set it down on the side of the table where he had sat the morning I took him to the plane. I lit a cigarette for him and set it in an ash tray beside the cup. I watched the steam rise from the coffee and the thin thread of smoke rise from the cigarette. Outside in the tecoma a bird was gussing around, talking to himself in low chirps, with an occasional brief flutter of wings.

Then the coffee didn’t steam any more and the cigarette stopped smoking and was just a dead butt on the edge of an ash tray. I dropped it into the garbage can under the sink. I poured the coffee out and washed the cup and put it away.

That was that. It didn’t seem quite enough to do for five thousand dollars.

I went to a late movie after a while. It meant nothing. I hardly saw what went on. It was just noise and big faces. (Chandler 1953, 487-488)

9This is an emblematic passage in a novel whose pathos, as its title suggests, is created by the motif of disappearance and the aura left by the vanishing person, persisting like the Cheshire Cat’s smile in Alice in Wonderland. But all of Chandler’s novels are, in a sense, "long good-byes" or "farewells" to (male as well as female) "lovelies", their emotional starting-point a violent break in social ties, whose emotional reverberation the detective gradually internalizes and echoes in his understated hard-boiled language. Thus, as opposed to a canonical hard-boiled novel like Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (1930), in which the disappearance of the fabulous bird plunges the main characters into a frenzied and murderous competition for its recovery, Chandler’s stories look back rather than forward to the missing object, emphasizing its lingering aura, in a perfect illustration of Hegel’s theory of desire as the "presence of an absence" (Kojève 12).

  • 6 In a similar way the valuable Brasher Doubloon, the missing coin from the early years of the Republ (...)

10But, despite his differences with Hammett, Chandler may have taken a cue from The Maltese Falcon, as reappearance is, in his stories, synonymous with delusion, just as the missing bird in Hammett’s novel, when it finally emerges at the end of a long and bloody trail, turns out to be a fake.6 The surfacing of missing characters, or of the truth about them, is indeed a pivotal moment of failed anagnorisis in Chandler’s fiction. Some of these missing characters are dead and unrecognizable, like Rusty Regan, whose corpse has been thrown into a sump after his murder and who has become a "horrible decayed thing" (Chandler 1939, 762) according to his former wife; or like Crystal Kingsley, disfigured beyond recognition as her decomposed body comes to the surface of Little Fawn Lake in The Lady in the Lake, in a grimly ironic reversal of the Arthurian story:

  • 7 Such pits and lakes where bodies are abandoned to their lonely decomposition after a violent death (...)

The thing rolled over once more and an arm flapped up barely above the skin of the water and the arm ended in a bloated hand that was the hand of a freak. Then the face came. A swollen pulpy gray white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. A blotch of gray dough, a nightmare with human hair on it. (Chandler 1943, 397)

11But missing persons who reemerge alive, under different names and social identities, are often equally disfigured, this time morally. Such is the case with Velma Valento in Farewell, My Lovely and Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye, whom the detective rediscovers as they are living new lives under assumed names and whom, in the case of Terry Lennox, he refuses to recognize: "you’re not here any more. You’re long gone. You’ve got nice clothes and perfume and you’re as elegant as a fifty-dollar whore" (Chandler 1953, 734).

12Thus, Chandler’s missing characters, when they are found again or accounted for, turn out to be either morally innocent but physically dead (Regan, Crystal) or physically alive but morally dead (Velma, Muriel, Terry). Sometimes also, in an ironic variation on the same equation, their dead features take on a look of innocence that belies their moral degradation. When Marlowe stumbles upon Orrin P. Quest’s corpse, moments only after his murder, death, in a striking mock-epiphany, is restoring it to a youthful innocence that was never his:

Something happened to his face, the indefinable thing that happens in that always baffling and inscrutable moment, the smoothing out, the going back over the years to the age of innocence. The face now had a vague inner amusement, an almost roguish lift at the corners of the mouth. All of which was very silly, because I knew damn well, if ever I knew anything at all, that Orrin P. Quest had not been that kind of boy. (Chandler 1949, 332) 

The society of the spectacle and the "lost town"

  • 8 For a survey of Los Angeles hard-boiled fiction after Chandler, see Fine, 2004, 115-152.

13If individual disappearances are at the centre of Chandler’s plots, they also offer, when taken as a whole, a dynamic picture of the Southern Californian society as an opaque, transformative community which people not only disappear from but also into: a safe haven for criminals and otherwise guilty characters who can be reborn under new identities, provided they have the right kind of money and connections. His narratives represent the New Jerusalem of the West as a simulacrum society of false names and fake marriages, betrayals and bigamy, bastards and changelings. The narrative arc of the P.I.’s investigation can, in this context, be seen as a genealogical quest for the criminal origins of this society. In his search, his main competitors are the blackmailers, the sinister mobsters/night-club owners who stand on the margins of Chandler’s world and prey on the secrets of the rich and weak. Under Chandler’s influence, the reproduction of society as a criminal reconfiguration of violently broken ties would become the central anthropological myth of Californian noir, its perspective appropriated by his first disciples (Roy Huggins, William Francis, William Campbell Gault and especially Ross Macdonald) and enduring into the following decades, down to Walter Moseley and James Ellroy.8 In Chandler, this narrative matrix can be read in two main ways: culturally, as an indictment of the Hollywood system and of the "society of the spectacle"; phenomenologically, as a record of Chandler’s lived experience of the city, in which the new not only grows out of the old but also dislocates it, effacing physical landmarks and former communities with puzzling swiftness.

  • 9 "Hays fever swept the front offices. The moguls [...] launched an undercover investigation of every (...)

14First, from the cultural point of view, Chandler’s vision fits in with the aura of suspicion that had surrounded the growth of the film colony since the early 1920s, when the first Hollywood sex and murder scandals hit the headlines, prompting a general investigation of its mores by Will Hays (the investigation ended in consigning 117 suspicious people to Hays’ mythical "doom book"9) and beginning a long series of moral overhauls of the movie world. Similarly, the blacklistings of the late 1940s, following the exposure of Hollywood as a supposed nest of radicals, would anchor in the public mind a vision of the film colony as a place full of hidden pasts and double lives, whitewashing its immoral denizens and recycling them into icons for public consumption. Chandler’s dim view of the Hollywood system, to which both his article on "Writers in Hollywood" (Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1945) and his letters testify, was no doubt reinforced by his frustrations as a screenwriter, accusing the studios of destroying or defacing the writers’ work for the screen. He would build Hollywood’s transformative alchemy into the narrative logic of The Little Sister, where it becomes the force that drives Orrin P. Quest’s turn to sadism and murder:

Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunchbox. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionnaires and so blasé and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture mover in a sweaty undershirt.

And by remote control it might even take a small-town prig like Orrin P. Quest and make an ice-pick murderer out of him in a matter of months, elevating his simple meanness into the classic sadism of the multiple killer. (Chandler 1949, 335) 

15This passage, with its series of mock metamorphoses, clearly suggests the connection between Chandler’s plots and his indictment of Hollywood culture, extending beyond Hollywood itself to encompass, more generally, a "Hollywoodized" culture based on the manipulation and defacement of the real.

  • 10 On the articulation between character and personality, see Susman 2003. Susman’s theory is discusse (...)

16And herein lies the cultural politics of Chandler’s crime fiction, which indicts the loss of authenticity in an age that is no longer simply that of mechanical reproductibility but is already moving towards the era of global spectacle, in the Debordian sense. Such a loss is emphasized everywhere in Chandler, for whom California is characterized by what Gilles Deleuze, in reference to noir fiction, calls "the power of the fake" (Deleuze 117). What disappears in this mutation is not only truth but, more importantly, character, the character of things as well as of people, which can be replaced by an artificial personality that (like Terry Lennox’s new self, new name and "nice clothes and perfume") can be made to order.10 Philip Marlowe’s inner voice, as it spins a long monologue throughout Chandler’s seven novels and deconstructs the falsifying logic of this culture, recasts and perfects the Hammettian private investigator’s acerbic discourse as the last enduring manifestation of character and the only touchstone of knowledge in a world of treacherous appearances. In particular, his exaggerated similes, which pitilessly and often comically underline the phoniness of the world around him and the aggressive cheapness of mass media—"The heartrending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel" (Chandler 1942, 1125)—also suggest a resistance to the world of postwar capitalist culture, a postmodern world from which, to quote from Fredric Jameson, the solidity of prewar landmarks has evaporated:

The life problems of such a world are radically different in kind than those of the relatively simple world of needs and physical resistance which preceded it. They involve a struggle, not against things and relatively solid systems of power, but against ideological fantasms, bits and pieces of spiritualized matter, the sollicitations of various kinds of dreamlike mirages and cravings, a life to the second power, not heightened and intensified but merely refined and confused, unable to find a footing in the reality of things. (Jameson 137-138) 

17Chandler’s narratives and the steady, ironic voice of his narrator, a voice from the past resisting the onslaughts of a powerfully alienating culture, perpetuate what George Orwell has identified as the protestant tradition of the novel, "a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual" (Orwell 125), translating the phoniness of the postmodern culture back into the language and coordinates of the old "world of needs and physical resistance".

18Secondly, Chandler’s emphasis on disappearances also expresses the transformations of the metropolis. In the powerful opening of Farewell, My Lovely, Moose Malloy, an ex-convict who has come out of jail after eight years in captivity, is looking for his long lost girlfriend, Velma Valento, in downtown Los Angeles. But the area is quickly becoming a black neighborhood and the night-club where Velma used to work has changed hands and become a black establishment. The novel’s first sentence strikes an ominous note of ethnic transformation: "It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro" (Chandler 1940, 767). Obsessed with the idea of finding his lost girl, Malloy does not realize the ethnic changes that have taken place around him. A giant dressed in gaudy clothes, sharply outlined against a background of "slim quiet negroes", he looks, Marlowe tells us in one of his more baroque similes, "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food" (Ibid.). The expressionist comparison underlines Malloy’s alienation in a changed neighborhood from which the woman he loves has disappeared and where—under pressure from the second great (wartime) migration—new social barriers are being erected, in an ethnicized version of the Rip van Winkle story.

19Chandler is probably the first hard-boiled author to register the ethnic reconfigurations of Los Angeles. But these are seen as instances of a more general transformation: the disappearance of familiar landmarks and of the sense of community which used to characterize the town before the population boom. This is particularly clear in Chandler’s descriptions of Bunker Hill, the oldest residential district in central Los Angeles, which has become (in The High Window, 1942) a crumbling area slated for destruction:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit old men with faces like lost battles. 

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruitstands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them. (Chandler 1942, 1036-1037)

20Chandler’s almost Balzacian gaze, his acute focus on moral and social detail betray his sensibility to the vanishing character and identity of a "lost town", now left out of the circuit of the productive economy and inhabited only by vestigial, transient, parasitical or criminal dwellers. The murders that take place in such surroundings (it is in one of these decrepit rooming houses that Philip Marlowe finds the corpse of the luckless and down-at-heel private eye, Phillips), echoing the violence made to the city and the "lost battles" in old people’s faces, suggest a symbolic sin hidden at the heart of the metropolis, of the same kind that underlies T.S. Eliot’s representation of London’s "falling towers" in The Waste Land. What seems to take place in Bunker Hill is a general sclerosis of the geographical and historic core of the city, materializing the idea of "a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness" (Chandler 1953, 645). The expansion of Chandler’s narrative world, gradually unveiling the metaphysical void at its core, thus finds a perfect objective correlative in the geographical expansion of Los Angeles and the collapse of its physical and social center.

21There is a case to be made, looking back to Poe’s "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (where Mme L’Espanaye’s aristocratic mansion has been transformed, due to poverty, into a rooming house inhabited by people of uncertain origin and character), for crime fiction as an embodiment of the loss of property relationships between urban families and their houses. "People named Smith and Jones […] who look like nothing in particular and know it" represent a new stage in urban civilization wherein individuals can no longer be recognized or authenticated by their surroundings or kinship ties. They recall Spengler’s vision of the new nomads in the modern city :

Long, long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.

  • 11 Though it exceeds the possibilities of this article, the connection between Spengler’s vision of th (...)

In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller […]. (Spengler 1927, vol. 2, 102; vol. 1, 32)11 

22Like Spengler, Chandler focuses on the uprootedness and loss of energy at the heart of the bloated city, as an age of accelerating mass migration destroys its stable relationship to the country. Again, the poetics of crime fiction, based on the assumption that in the modern city nobody’s character can be vouched for or relied upon, is deeply connected with this general vision of a world whose traditions and historical dimensions are being swallowed up and whose "fluid masses", replacing "type-true people, born of and grown on the soil", embody the disappearance of character. The missing person and the unsolved murder are, in this context, signs of the alienating transition from the "lost town" to the metropolis.

Chandler before Chandler

  • 12 He would thus write in a late letter to John Houseman, the producer of The Blue Dahlia: "I have los (...)

23As suggested earlier, Chandler’s stories of disappearances and metamorphoses can also be read reflexively, as a commentary on his own fate by a writer tied to a city and a genre which he wasn’t born into but with which, for better or for worse, he became closely identified. First, their vision of historical change has obvious autobiographical resonance, suggesting Chandler’s own increasing sense of alienation in a city that he had helped put on the map of literature but that he felt he was losing even as it was growing around him. This feeling would find personal expression in his letters to his friends,12 but it also comes out in such moments as Philip Marlowe’s periodical returns to his empty office or home, the theoretical centres of his urban world, where his only activities consist in playing chess games out of books or drinking whiskey while waiting for the phone to ring. Turning to existential pathos the romantic type of the bachelor detective, Marlowe’s last return home, at the end of Playback, brings out fully the identity between empty life, empty home and empty city:

  • 13 This is just before a contrived happy end has Linda Loring, out of The Long Goodbye, call Marlowe, (...)

The room was stuffy and dull and impersonal as it always was. I opened a couple of windows and mixed a drink in the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and stared at the wall. Wherever I went, whatever I did, this was what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Chandler 1958, 869-870)13

  • 14 They have been reprinted in Chandler, 1973.

24But Chandler’s poetics also suggests another autobiographical perspective. Years after his death, Matthew J. Bruccoli exhumed a body of his early poems, dating from the years when Chandler was living in London and writing for Chamber’s Magazine or the Westminster Gazette. These pieces, signed "R. T. Chandler", stand in marked stylistic contrast to the later hard-boiled stories14 and bring to life a young romantic writer who never blossomed into a mature poet. Had Chandler pursued this early quest, he might have turned into an Eliot-like figure: an enlightened, refined American expatriate joining the London literary scene. Instead of which, twenty years later, he would begin a new writing career on the other side of the Atlantic and at the bottom of the cultural scale, writing for a New York pulp magazine specializing in "gripping, smashing detective stories", to quote from the masthead of the 1933 issue in which his first story appeared.

25The yearning for the poetry of his youth comes out at times, indirectly, in Chandler’s fiction, as when, in The High Window, Marlowe restores the traumatized Merle to her family, bringing her back to the rural surroundings of her childhood. Upon leaving her house, he is filled with nostalgia: "I had a funny feeling as I saw the house disappear, as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again" (Chandler 1942, 1174-5). One feels Chandler’s longing, here, for the poems that he didn’t write (he never had much praise for the ones that he did) but that he might have written: a longing for a lost promise, for a future lying dead somewhere in the past, like the long-dead corpses that Philip Marlowe stumbles upon in his searches for missing people and missing truths.

26Chandler’s focus on disappearance and loss thus finds an echo in his own mutation from an aspiring London poet into an American hard-boiled writer. But, in a world governed by impermanence and mutability, the alluring past itself, when it reappears, turns out to be worthless, and only the deep stoicism which characterizes the best hard-boiled fiction (Hammett’s and Hemingway’s as well as Chandler’s) makes the loss—not so much of the past, as of the value of the past—bearable.

27This is nowhere as clear as in The Long Goodbye, where Chandler finally comes to terms with his buried English past. In this novel, the pseudo-English Terry Lennox, whose real name is Paul Marston, at first appears as Philip Marlowe’s attractive double. Both men have the same initials, both bear the names of Elizabethan playwrights, both are loved or desired by the same woman, the beautiful Eileen Wade. The latter sees Marlowe as a reincarnation of Marston, whom she believes (wrongly) to have died in England during the blitz:

A woman is only a young girl once. The man I loved then is dead. He died in the war. His name, strangely enough, had the same initials as yours. It doesn’t matter now—except that sometimes I can’t quite believe that he is dead. His body was never found. It happened to many men. […] Sometimes—not often, of course—when I go into a quiet cocktail lounge or the lobby of a good hotel at a dead hour, or along the deck of a liner early in the morning or very late at night, I think I may see him waiting for me in a shadowy corner. […] It’s very silly. I’m ashamed of it. We were very much in love—the wild, mysterious, improbable kind of love that never comes but once. (Chandler 1953, 571) 

28This is a complex passage with multidimensional, and even personal implications. On the one hand, the London setting, the nostalgic tone and the image of a reunion with a dead lover "waiting […] in a shadowy corner" hark back to the young "R. T. Chandler" and to the kind of romantic poetry that he used to write. Thus "The Unknown Love", his first published poem, with its persona praying in the dark that it may be reunited with a departed lover:

         In my eyes the tears are welling
         As I stand before your dwelling,
In my pilgrimage to where you lived, my fair.
         And ere I return to duty
         In this world of weary beauty,
To the stillness of the night I breathe my prayer:

         When the last great trump has sounded,
         When life’s barque the point has rounded,
When the wheel of human progress is at rest,
         My belovèd, may I meet you,
         With a lover’s kiss to greet you,
Where you wait me in the gardens of the blest! (Chandler 1908, 48)

29On the other hand, the beautiful Eileen Wade is later revealed to be a psychotic multiple killer who tries to frame Marlowe for the murder of her second husband. Her romantic language retrospectively appears, to use one of Chandler’s similes in the same novel, "as thin as gold on a weekend wedding ring" (Chandler 1953, 482), and as unsatisfactory as, to the mature Chandler, his own early poems must have sounded. Eileen’s unreliability matches Lennox’s, who is revealed to be a phony Englishman and a "moral defeatist" (Chandler 1953, 733), and whose versatility and borrowed personalities, as he mutates from Marston to Lennox to (in the later part of the novel) Señor Maioranos, contrast unfavorably with Marlowe’s unchanging character, just as his elegant but affected English speech emphasizes, by comparison, the honesty of Marlowe’s blunt American vernacular.

30And thus, as Marlowe finally, and stoically, turns his back on Lennox on the last page of the novel, so Chandler seems to become reconciled to his fate as an American hard-boiled writer, addressing a "long goodbye" to the London poet he had once tried to become and to the dead idiom that he used, both of which no longer seemed to be worth resurrecting.

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Anger, Kenneth, Hollywood Babylon, Paris : Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1959; New York: Dell, 1975.

Chandler, R. T., "The Unknown Love", Chamber’s Journal, XII, 19 December 1908.

Chandler, Raymond, "The Man Who Liked Dogs", Black Mask, March 1936.

——, "The Curtain", Black Mask, September 1936.

——, "Try the Girl", Black Mask, January 1937.

——, "The Lady in the Lake", Dime Detective Magazine, January 1939.

——, The Big Sleep [1939], Stories and Early Novels, New York: Library of America, 1995.

——, Farewell, My Lovely [1940], Stories and Early Novels, op. cit.

——, The High Window [1942], Stories and Early Novels, op. cit.

——, The Lady in the Lake [1943], Later Novels and Other Writings, New York: Library of America, 1995.

——, The Little Sister [1949], Later Novels and Other Writings, op. cit.

——, The Long Goodbye [1953], Later Novels and Other Writings, op. cit.

——, Playback [1958], Later Novels and Other Writings, op. cit.

——, Killer in the Rain, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964.

——, Chandler Before Marlowe, Matthew J. Bruccoli ed., Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.

Daly, Carroll John, The Hidden Hand, New York: HarperPerennial, 1992 [1928].

Davis, Mike, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, London and New York: Verso, 1990.

Deleuze, Gilles, "Philosophie de la Série Noire" [1966], L'île déserte et autres textes, Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit, 2002.

Fine, David M., Imagining Los Angeles, A City in Fiction, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2004.

Hammett, Dashiell, Red Harvest, New York: Knopf, 1929.

——, The Maltese Falcon, New York: Knopf, 1930.

——, The Thin Man, New York: Knopf, 1934.

Hammett, Jo, A Daughter Remembers, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001.

Houseman, John, "Lost Fortnight: A Memoir", in Raymond Chandler, The Blue Dahlia, A Screenplay, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976.

Jameson, Fredric, "On Raymond Chandler" [1970], in Glen W. Most & William W. Stowe, ed., The Poetics of Murder, San Diego & New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Kojève, Alexandre, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, Paris : Gallimard, Coll. "Tel", 1980 [1947].

Macdonald, Ross, "The Writer as Detective Hero" [1973], Self-Portrait, Ceaselessly into the Past, Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1981.

Orwell, George, "Inside the Whale" [1940], Essays, London: Penguin, 1994.

Smith, Errin A., Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, translated by Charles Francis Arkinson, New York: Knopf, 1927.

Susman, Warren, Culture as History: The Transformation of American society in the Twentieth Century, Washingon and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.

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1 "There is pathos, too, in the idea that a man who can write like a fallen angel should be a mere private eye; and Socratic irony." (Macdonald 119)

2 In these and later instances, the first date refers to the publication of the stories as serials in Black Mask, the second to their issue as hardback novels (with significant textual differences in all cases).

3 These changes are well captured in Davis, 1990. Between 1910 and 1960, Los Angeles’s population grew from 319,198 to 2,479,015. In 1930 it stood at 1,238,048. United States Census Bureau / Census of Population and Housing, Accessed 15 October 2016.

4 Chandler always opposed the reissue of these pulp magazine stories, on which parts of his later novels were based; they were brought out again only after his death, in the collection Killer in the Rain (1964).

5 "If I couldn’t still feel the lure of the man-hunt I wouldn’t be in the game." (Daly 134)

6 In a similar way the valuable Brasher Doubloon, the missing coin from the early years of the Republic, which Philip Marlowe is hired to recover at the beginning of The High Window, dissolves in the course of the novel into a multitude of fake coins, in what can be read as both a variation on Hammett’s archetypal novel and an oblique comment on the devaluation of American democracy.

7 Such pits and lakes where bodies are abandoned to their lonely decomposition after a violent death are a recurring obsession in Chandler and may perhaps be linked to his traumatic experience of trenches and fox-holes during World War I. In this, his poetics of murder is significantly different from Hammett’s, which favours the violent shootout or explosion rather than the discovery of corpses by the lonely detective.

8 For a survey of Los Angeles hard-boiled fiction after Chandler, see Fine, 2004, 115-152.

9 "Hays fever swept the front offices. The moguls [...] launched an undercover investigation of everybody in sight and turned loose a frantic, competing horde of private eyes on Hollywood. Detectives used the whole bag of dirty tricks from bribing servants to peering in windows, even primitive 'listening devices'. When the reports came in, the front offices died a little. With the approval of Czar Hays, a Doom Book was compiled with a total of 117 Hollywood names deemed 'unsafe' because of their no longer private lives." (Anger 68)

10 On the articulation between character and personality, see Susman 2003. Susman’s theory is discussed in the context of pulp magazines in Smith, 64 ff.

11 Though it exceeds the possibilities of this article, the connection between Spengler’s vision of the decay of urban civilization and noir fiction is worth exploring. At the time when The Thin Man was being published by Knopf, Hammett claimed that "his favorite book [was] Spengler’s Decline of the West and he often turn[ed] to it for bedtime reading". Promotional material for The Thin Man (January 1934), reproduced in Jo Hammett, 68.

12 He would thus write in a late letter to John Houseman, the producer of The Blue Dahlia: "I have lost Los Angeles. It is no longer the place I knew so well and was almost the first to put on paper. I have that feeling, not very unusual, that I helped create the town and was then pushed out of it by its operators. I can hardly find my way around any longer…" (Houseman xxi).

13 This is just before a contrived happy end has Linda Loring, out of The Long Goodbye, call Marlowe, asking him to marry him.

14 They have been reprinted in Chandler, 1973.

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Bibliographical reference

Benoît Tadié, The Long Goodbyes: Raymond Chandler’s Poetics of Disappearance and Loss Caliban, 56 | 2016, 67-83.

Electronic reference

Benoît Tadié, The Long Goodbyes: Raymond Chandler’s Poetics of Disappearance and Loss Caliban [Online], 56 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2016, connection on 29 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Benoît Tadié

Université Rennes 2

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