The Development of the Detective in American "hard-boiled" Fiction with Reference to Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s "The Curtain", "Killer in the Rain" and "The Big Sleep"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 27 Pages

American Studies - Literature


List of Content:

1. Introduction

2. The way to American “hard-boiled” fiction
2.1. The origins
2.2. “The Golden Age of the Detective Novel”
2.3. American “hard-boiled” fiction
2.3.1. The “tough guy”

3. The creation of Philip Marlowe
3.1. The Metamorphosis
3.2.1. The sleuth’s moral
3.2.2. The chivalrous knight
3.2.3. Protection of the client
3.2.4. Women

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited


Raymond Thornton Chandler started his career as a crime novelist relatively late in 1933 at the age of 45 (Widdicombe, xvi). With the foundation of the Black Mask Magazine, Chandler, as well as many other writers, got the chance to test his talent as a crime novelist and simultaneously to raise some money.

His first stories were miniature novels which were strongly influenced by his British sophistication and education (Phillips, 17). But he was aware of the fact that he had to veil his style of writing in order to make it acceptable to the American readers, especially the Black Mask readers (Phillips, 17). During 1933 and 1939 Chandler published 20 detective stories in several “pulp magazines” until he wrote his first novel The Big Sleep (Neumeyer, 329). By writing longer fiction Chandler had to portray his characters fully and give an authentic sense of the world, whereas the short story allowed him to rely on action (MacShane, 63).

He experimented with several characters and with different names out of many different private investigators he used before in his short stories, namely "Killer in the Rain" and "The Curtain", until he created the private-eye and protagonist Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (Phillips, xxii). He did the same with the plot by using some former short stories, which form the basis of the novel. He called this process “cannibalizing” (MacShane, 67) which is founded on the fact that he was “a poor plotter and bad at construction” (Neumeyer, 368).

The figure Philip Marlowe, who appears in The Big Sleep for the first time, is a real detective, a “tough guy” which Chandler adopted from Hammett and Daly, set into a real world in contrast to the English version which are “detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” living in a fictitious world of country houses and clubs (Buchloh, 105). Many Americans who read the English crime stories felt that it had nothing to do with life in the big cities and wanted something particularly American. George Grella stated: “Populated by real criminals and real policemen […] the hard-boiled stories were considered by their writers and readers honest, accurate portraits of American life” (Parini, 360).

Chandler’s ambition was to mark off from the English detectives of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, i.e. to create a reliable character that would “leave scars” and transfer what he calls a “’half-poetical emotion’ that is the heart of the work” (MacShane, 69). This kind of reliability became one of Chandler’s dogmas and occurs not only in his creation of characters and plot but also in the historical background of the stories.

In the following paper I’m going to analyze the origin and development of the private-eye in general. I will focus my analysis on the development of the detective in American “hard-boiled” fiction with reference to Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s “The Curtain”, “Killer in the Rain”, and the novel The Big Sleep. The choice relies on the fact that The Big Sleep and its character Philip Marlowe evolved from the two short stories. The question also includes how Marlowe is characterized throughout the stories.

2. The way to American “hard-boiled” fiction

2.1. The origins

Among all literary critics Edgar Allan Poe can be named as initiator of the classic “detective short story” (Buchloh, 34). His story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) set the standards concerning form, subject and characters for its successors. I will not describe the pattern and structure of this story in detail but in order to understand the development of American “hard-boiled” fiction one important element needs to be analyzed. At the beginning of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Poe gives a short essay of the “analytical mind”. It is introduced by a quotation of Browne’s Urn Burial that says:

“What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he did himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.” (Poe, 401).

It claims that there is no puzzle beyond discussion or reason that cannot be solved by human mental abilities. These abilities are personified in the amateur detective Auguste Dupin who is only interested in the case to test his intellectual potential. That is why Poe’s detective stories are called “tale [s] of ratiocination” (Buchloh, 35). He is detached but not involved (Buchloh, 20). He solves the murder as it were from the armchair. The figure of the “Great Detective” is hence formed (Buchloh, 19). He is a lonesome eccentric who, as in Dupin’s case, lives in the dark during the day and smokes a pipe. He is highly intelligent and sometimes of noble descent. H. Singer describes him as “Drachentöter des 19. Jahrhunderts” (Buchloh, 19). Nonetheless, he is not bound to a special class; he is as familiar with the lower classes as with the high classes and makes his inquiries. The detective is a superman, a “Thinking-Machine” who has a perfect command of the science of deduction and analysis (Buchloh, 20). He is not interested in re-establishing law and order, a feature that will change in the American version.

2.2. “The Golden Age of the Detective Novel”

Until “The Golden Age of the Detective Novel” emerged between 1914 and 1939, Poe was one of the few who wrote detective stories (Buchloh, 69). The genre was revived in England by literary intellectuals who reshaped the form and established a precise set of rules. As a result, the “orthodox detective novel” was founded (Buchloh, 69). Some authors of that time were A.A. Milne, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers. The stories included the so-called “crossword-puzzle” an element which was developed by E.A. Poe (Buchloh, 70). It presented, right at the beginning of the story, a murder which was solved by an omniscient detective and a less competent sidekick (Buchloh, 104).

The story was mostly set in a small, demarcated environment, like a village, country house or train with a small number of characters among those the criminal could be found (See Murder on the Orient Express) (Buchloh, 71). It alluded to idyllic images the reader was used to which were alienated by a crime. The setting expanded geographically when trains, planes and automobiles were invented (Buchloh, 71).

As a successor to the “Great Detective” the authors favoured a detective who occurred in a series of works. He or she (Christie started to introduce a female investigator) was also an amateur detective who had good connections to the police (Buchloh, 73). He or she solves the case either with the help of the “little grey cells” like Hercule Poirot, or like Miss Marple with her experience of life (Buchloh, 73). There are also detectives who used their intuition or were police officers at Scotland Yard (Buchloh, 73). Apart from some exceptions, the detective figures of the Golden Age withdraw from the “Great Detective” and become more and more average persons, but are still highly intelligent. The most considerable difference becomes clear between the English detective, who is “of exquisite and impossible gentility”, in contrast to the detective of American “hard-boiled” fiction (Buchloh, 105).

2.2. American “hard-boiled” fiction

The American “hard-boiled” fiction was a break from the English crime fiction concerning different elements.

The American audience rejected the English authors because it had little or nothing in common with the life in the big cities they were used to. They longed for something particularly American

populated by real criminals and real policemen, reflecting some of the tensions of the time, endowed with considerable narrative urgency, and imbued with the disenchantment peculiar to post-war American writing, the hard-boiled stories were considered by their writers and readers honest, accurate portraits of American life (Parini, 360).



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University of Kassel – Anglistik-Amerikanistik
Development Detective American Fiction Reference Philip Marlowe Raymond Chandler’s Curtain Killer Rain Sleep Crime



Title: The Development of the Detective in American "hard-boiled" Fiction with Reference to Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s "The Curtain", "Killer in the Rain" and "The Big Sleep"