Channeling Chandler: Mean Streets & MGTOW

In the introduction to his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, William L. DeAndrea lists a series of assumptions that underlie detective fiction:

  • That such a thing as objective truth exists.
  • That it’s desirable to find out what it is.
  • That it’s possible to find out what the truth is.
  • That people have a responsibility to their fellow beings not to kill or hurt them or steal from them.
  • That if people do hurt, kill, or steal, they should be found and punished, or at least forced to make restitution.

When DeAndrea’s book came out in 1994, the above was the norm, not just for detective fiction but for society at large. Today, however, we hear about my truth or your truth while the very concept of objective truth is called into question. Meanwhile, lawlessness rules (or rather, misrules) the land and accountability means finger-pointing at everyone but oneself.

Nevertheless, I think DeAndrea’s assumptions still hold true vis-à-vis the detective of fiction and film. Call him what you will – a sleuth, a gumshoe, a shamus, a PI, or a keyhole peeper – the detective’s stock in trade is uncovering or discovering the truth. Always a bit of a loner, the detective was MGTOW before MGTOW was cool. Of course, some feminist bloggers and influencers would assert that MGTOWs have always been dicks.

When I say “detective,” however, I am not including all fictional protagonists since the beginning of the genre. Edgar Allan Poe is often considered the father of the detective story (the annual awards for mysteries are known as the Edgar awards – in fact, DeAndrea’s book won the Edgar for Best Critical or Biographical Work in 1994), but his Parisian detective (C. Auguste Dupin of “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter”) has little in common with the detectives who came along a century or so later.

I would also say the same of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s erudite Victorian, as well as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s best known protagonists. Christie’s 1939 opus And Then There Were None (the book has an alternate title which includes a word that cannot be said in polite company) has sold more than 100 million copies, making it the most popular mystery in publishing history, so it is difficult to dismiss her contribution to the genre. Her books, however, are exemplars of the British whodunnit, in which a murder is just a puzzle to be solved. The dead body itself is the first clue and its discovery launches the plot. Against all probability (not to mention crime statistics), the victim and the suspects are usually from the more respectable tiers of society.

On the other hand, American detective stories feature tough guys, lowlifes and floozies! In an Agatha Christie novel, such people who would be as out of place as a booger in a cup of Earl Grey tea. So when I talk about detectives, I am talking about good old-fashioned, red-blooded, hard-boiled American detectives. (Feel free to chant “USA! USA! USA! USA!”)

By exalting American detective writers, I don’t mean to include all authors who happen to have U.S. birth certificates. No, I’m not talking about the Hardy Boys mysteries. Not the Nancy Drew mysteries. And certainly not the Scooby-Doo mysteries.

Also, I am not including the DEI detectives who followed the classic MGTOW detectives. These would include Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (black), Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small (Jewish), and Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawsky (female), who have attracted legions of fans and spawned profitable series for their authors. You probably will not be surprised to learn that novels with queer and trans detectives are now available. To a large degree all of the above are following the trail blazed by the pantheon of authors from the golden age (1930s-1940s) of hard-boiled detective fiction, which helped to inspire the golden age of film noir (1940s-1950s). Perhaps the most renowned author of the hard-boiled school was Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe, protagonist of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, The Lady in the Lake, and Farewell, My Lovely, among others. Chandler was also something of a theorist of the detective genre.

In December 1944, Chandler, wrote an essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder” for the Atlantic magazine. An assessment of the state of detective fiction at the time, it has been cited often, perhaps because the works of Chandler as well as his peers, notably Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man) and James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce), are still read and provided the raw (in some cases, really raw!) material for many films that are still shown at repertory cinemas or appear periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

Chandler died in 1959 long before MGTOW was a thing, yet an oft-quoted excerpt from his 1944 essay has a contemporary ring to it. It almost sounds like a MGTOW manifesto:

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. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

The phrase “mean streets,” of course was the source of the title of the 1973 Martin Scorsese movie about young hoods in New York’s Little Italy. This raises the question of the meaning of mean. Clearly, “mean” in the sense of malicious is implied, but Chandler might have also meant in the sense of small-mindedness.

He talks as the man of his age talks – that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The detective, in other words, is in this world but not of this world. He transcends it even as he lives in it. In fact, you could probably attach some quasi-religious significance to such a way of life. The “monk mode” school of MGTOW is not thar far removed from the world of the detective:

The whole point is that the detective exists complete and entire and unchanged by anything that happens, that he is, as detective, outside the story and above it, and always will be. That is why he never gets the girl, never marries, never really has any private life, except insofar as he must eat and sleep and have a place to leave his clothes.

Chandler was perhaps an unlikely practitioner of hard-boiled fiction. Born in Chicago to Quaker parents, he grew up in Nebraska but spent his adolescence in England and received a classical education at tony Dulwich College. His novels appealed to both British and American readers, though his work was more in keeping with American taste in detective novels.

Chandler read the work of his competitors on both sides of the pond and had opinions on just about all of them. While he looked the part of the proper English gentleman, his prose belied that image. In his own words, Chandler “was trying to get murder away from the upper classes, the week-end house party and the vicar’s rose garden, and back to the people who are really good at it.” Consequently, while his prose was as polished as that of his British counterparts, the style was livelier and the dialogue was slangier. “The English may not always be the best writers in the world,” he observed, “but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”

Rooted in both America and England, Chandler chose to return to America as a young man but felt the call of duty after the British entered World War I. After serving in the Canadian army, he settled in Los Angeles and went to work in the accounting department of an oil company. Eventually, he was promoted to Vice-President but his alcoholism and the Great Depression consigned him to the ranks of the unemployed. A fan of pulp fiction, he felt he could improve on what he read. Given his circumstances, attempting to launch a career as a writer – a high-risk proposition even in the best of times – would seem to be ill-advised. In his youth in England he had published some essays and poetry, but that was hardly a suitable training ground for hard-boiled American fiction. Against all odds, he published his first short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” in 1933 at the age of 45.

The protagonist of Chandler’s story was named Mallory. The name derived from Thomas Malory, the 15th Century author of Le Morte d’Arthur, the definitive narrative of the King Arthur legend. When Chandler began The Big Sleep, his first novel, he started out with Mallory as the protagonist. His wife convinced him to change Mallory to Marlowe, perhaps a nod to playwright Christopher Marlowe, who followed Mallory about a century later. Since Marlowe’s most famous play was The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus, it might be that Chandler thought the morality play, the classic story of a man selling his soul to the devil, had more relevance to the 20th Century.

Chandler’s stories first appeared in Black Mask, a renowned periodical that launched the careers of a number of purveyors of pulp fiction (e.g., Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy, Erle Stanley Gardner), many of whose works are still in print.

Black Mask was not a publication designed to appeal to female readers. If you were a teenager in the 1930s and your mother found some Black Mask magazines in your room, she would pitch them out, as surely as mothers in later decades would trash comic books, Mad magazine, or Famous Monsters of Filmland.

While tame by today’s standards, the sexual component of hard-boiled fiction was troubling to those who advocated morally uplifting literature. The detective, being a normal male with normal testosterone levels (at least what was considered normal before the soyboy era), had an eye for hourglass figures and blondes, not necessarily in that order. He was attracted to women, dallied with them on occasion, yet never allowed them to “get” to him. In current parlance, he was “emotionally unavailable.” According to Chandler, “A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm.” In fact, in Chandler’s fiction, while Marlowe has an eye for the ladies, he never gets laid, at least not in the first five novels. He saves himself for The Long Goodbye in 1953.

Of course, another red flag in pulp fiction was the violence, no matter how logical it might be in relation to the storyline. Though not as brutal as his antagonists (Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer might be an exception), the pulp fiction detective could both dish it out and take it. While some female readers might get a tingle when reading descriptions of male-on-male violence, they would likely be aghast if their husbands or sons behaved that way.

Male or female, middle-class readers found the pulp fiction detective story to be something of a guilty pleasure. The reader could take a walk on the wild side without leaving his easy chair. No worries about ending up a bloody mess in a back alley or an emergency room! There was no denying it was escapism – but did that preclude it from being literature?

Chandler was 51 years old when his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. As each new novel was published, he acquired more and more fans, including “serious” writers, such as W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, W. Somerset Maugham, Christopher Isherwood and Evelyn Waugh. In France existentialists took an interest in Chandler’s works and some of them noted that Philip Marlowe was a pretty good match for Albert Camus’ concept of the absurdist hero.

It is also possible that some cross-pollination occurred. Given the time frame of existentialism’s spread through the intellectual class, it is not far-fetched to posit that a man as well-read as Chandler could have been influenced by it. Come to think of it, one could hardly ask for a better hard-boiled fiction title than Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal 1943 book.

It would be impossible to do justice to the philosophical/literary existentialist movement in this essay but if you’re looking for a sound bite definition, I offer the following:

Existentialism is about being a saint without God; being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society.

I don’t always hold with Google definitions, but I must give them credit for this one. A Saint without God would be another superb title for a hard-boiled novel.

By conventional standards, the detective/existentialist may not be virtuous, but he adheres to a code of some sort, typically one he has devised himself. This, of course, sets him apart not just from most of his fellow men, but all his fellow women (a phrase that sounds like an oxymoron). The herd instinct is stronger in the female, who seeks consensus even if it clashes with the truth. She is more likely to be triggered by the truth, or to be concerned that the truth might make someone else uncomfortable. The truth hurts! So she is more likely to cover it up than seek it out. Or she might resort to her truth. Either way, even if she slugs gin as readily as she slugs guys who get too gropy, she is an unlikely hard-boiled detective.

A dame can investigate a mystery and maybe even solve it, but she can’t be the protagonist in an American detective novel any more than she can be a knight in an Arthurian tale. The detective as knight (in tarnished if not shining) armor was a theme recognized by many literary critics who were fans of Chandler’s work. In essence, Philip Marlowe was a modern-day knight errant with a different quest in every novel. Given Chandler’s education during his lengthy British sojourn, this should not be surprising. Living in California while he pursued his writing career, he might have picked up a few cues from Asian culture. If so, he might have been aware of the Japanese ronin, a samurai without a master. Knight errant or ronin, each was a man going his own way.

Ironically, Chandler himself was not as MGTOW as his Mallory/Marlowe alter ego. In 1924, at the age of 35, he married Cissy Pascal, a 53-year-old divorcee – the stepmother of a friend. The marriage was her third, his first. Such a union would be unusual in any era, but it has provided much fodder for speculation among Chandler’s biographers. As a mama’s boy by default (his parents divorced when he was seven and he never saw his father again), was Chandler in the market for another mother? Notably, he and Cissy postponed marriage till Chandler’s mother died. On the other hand, Cissy had been a looker in her youth – in fact an artist’s model (on occasion nude) and had not let herself go. She looked at least ten years younger than her age (and passed herself off as such when she and Chandler tied the knot). Not surprisingly, she was a blonde, strawberry to be exact. So the age difference and her marital status (she was married at the time Chandler began his relationship with her) were irrelevant. It appeared that Chandler had not only met his match, he had met his muse.

Aside from Chandler’s occasional bender or girl on the side, domesticity reigned in the Chandler household till Cissy died in 1954. Afterwards Chandler was inconsolable and began hitting the bottle harder than ever. It showed in his work. While The Long Goodbye, published one year before Cissy’s death, was often cited as his best work, Playback, published in 1958, is generally considered the weakest. It was his only novel that was never filmed.

When Chandler died in 1959 he left behind four chapters of an unfinished novel (later finished by Robert B. Parker, a detective novelist who was also an admirer of Chandler) called Poodle Springs, in which Philip Marlowe is not only married he is the husband of a wealthy socialite, the woman he fornicated with in The Long Goodbye. They are living not in crime-infested Los Angeles but in the chi-chi resort town of Palm Springs. And that was Chandler’s final word on Philip Marlowe – a kept man! It was the equivalent of a hard-core MGTOW getting married – and adopting his wife’s last name! Thankfully, that is not the way Philip Marlowe is remembered.

The detective by tradition and definition is the seeker after truth,” noted Chandler. Yet 30 years after DeAndrea’s encyclopedia was published, and 80 years after Chandler’s essay on “The Simple Art of Murder” appeared, the truth is more elusive than ever. Even if discovered via investigation, it may not come to light, as it may conflict with the consensus or the narrative or the official story.

Nevertheless, more and more men are going their own way, which often takes them down mean streets peopled not just with the traditional goons, grifters, and doxies, but with feminists, Karens, body positivity activists, and gender studies majors.

The streets are a lot meaner – and uncleaner – than they were in 1944. But they’re the only streets we’ve got.

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