The knight who tried too hard

I am hooked onto Raymond Chandler these days. I should say, I am hooked onto Phil Marlowe these days. In his various avatars – John Dalmas, Carmady – they really are the same man. And I like that man!

The very first Chandler book I read was ‘The Big Sleep’ and when we meet Phil Marlowe he is obsessing over a knight in a painting who is trying to rescue a woman. He isn’t trying hard enough is Marlowe’s conclusion as he wishes he could step into the picture and help her out. There in a nutshell you have the man. He is a trier. He’s always game.

You never see the other pulp/genre leading men be that way. Take Hercule Poirot! When he is working on a case, he just swans in and questions who he likes and no one stops and says – ‘Wait! I have to tell you this, why?’ Sayers does it better. Not only are people not half as forthcoming but they often despise Lord Peter for bringing shame to his name, lowering his dignity and generally being meddlesome. He himself is conflicted as to why exactly he is doing this. He secretly suspects that he enjoys the mental game of it and it is not all about noble justice. Ok – that’s why I love Lord Peter too!

But Marlowe! When he asks questions he usually gets his answers from the wrong side of a shotgun – when he’s talking to the nice guys. Otherwise he gets beat up, head smashed, shot at. He picks his fights with the biggest goons in town and then goes home to his one room apartment with a pull down bed and such security as he can provide himself. What else could he manage on fifty dollars a day?

I just finished reading a particularly cynical short story in which everyone is equally morally dubious. The man wrongly framed for the murder is a wife beater. The murdered woman is not really dead. The real dead woman is an alcoholic kleptomaniac who seduces other men behind her husband’s back. The knight errant stand in is a black mailer. And the murderer is, well a murderer! Not one among the lot to root for.

Except Marlowe. He never puts a step wrong. Or when he does, it’s always for a noble cause. And it’s not like he’s boring us with all this nobility! He’s a wise guy with a lot of (how I hate this word – why I am I using it??) swag! I always liked Dick Francis’ heroes for how cool they were. Marlowe is more than cool – he’s a moral man in an immoral world.

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