In Star Trek: The Next Generation, set in the twenty-fourth century, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise enjoys relaxing on the ship’s holodeck; a recreational space where crew members can program story lines, take on a role, and then interact with holograms in a stunningly realistic three-dimensional environment.
Famously, Picard frequently programmed the holodeck based upon the parameters of the Dixon Hill mystery book series, set in a gritty urban American environment of the 1940s. Picard plays the role of Dixon Hill, a private eye who investigates the seedy underbelly of inner-city life in that era.
Captain Picard is played by actor Patrick Stewart, whose biography I recently wrote about in this column.* In his book, Stewart describes his lifelong voracious reading habit, developed in his youth. Among his favorites are the Philip Marlowe detective novels written by Raymond Chandler. After Stewart told the producers of Star Trek of his interest in Marlowe, Dixon Hill was born.
So, to summarize, the real Patrick Stewart enriched his fictional character Captain Jean-Luc Picard with a fascination for the fictional Dixon Hill, a character based upon the fictional Philip Marlowe, the creation of the very real Raymond Chandler.
Are you still with me? Well, the main thing to know is that it all started with the books. So, I decided to familiarize myself with the origins of all this intrigue by going to the source.
The first clue that I was onto something special was that nearly the entire collection of Raymond Chandler—written some 70-odd years ago during and after World War II—was right there on the shelf in my local library. Typically, a book first published that long ago would require a bit more snooping around (pun intended).
The second clue dropped about ten pages into The Big Sleep (1939) where we first encounter Philip Marlowe.** Oh my goodness… What an absolute treasure! I didn’t need a third clue, by the way.
I quickly followed that up with Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). Thankfully, there are several more.
Set in and around Los Angeles of the 1940s, the Philip Marlowe books epitomize more than a generation of gritty literary private eyes whose personalities are shaped by the depredations and corruptions of their environment. They almost always get lied to, often don’t get paid, get beat up, stare down the barrel of guns, and bump into dead bodies with regularity.
The Philip Marlowe plots are deliciously twisting and tawdry; although they often start out with the ordinary. A rich guy hires Marlowe to run down a blackmailer and only a few pages later the bodies start to show up. In another, Marlowe encounters Moose Malloy, fresh off an eight year prison hitch and in search of his girlfriend Velma. Next, a surly wealthy widow hires Marlowe to find her daughter-in-law who has run off with a rare coin known as the Brasher doubloon; and like many of Marlowe’s clients, she goes through spells of regret while dealing with his non-stop wisecracks. In the fourth, a wealthy businessman hires Marlowe to find his adulterous wife; first stop is her boyfriend’s house and the second is a remote cabin in the mountains outside LA where a nearby lake holds a bloated corpse.
All along the way, Marlowe’s first person observations paint every scene and character with the kind of descriptive detail that tickles not only the reader’s eyes, but his nose and skin. For instance, Marlowe doesn’t just get on an elevator; he invites us along for the ride. From The High Window:
“There were two open-grill elevators but only one seemed to be running and that not busy. An old man sat inside it slack-jawed and watery-eyed on a piece of folded burlap on top of a wooden stool. He looked as if he had been sitting there since the Civil War and had come out of it badly. I got in with him and said eight, and he wrestled the doors shut and cranked his buggy and we dragged upwards lurching. The old man breathed hard, as if he were carrying the elevator on his back.”The women Marlowe encounters are sized up with the misogyny of that time; but almost always with Marlowe’s basic decency intact and his integrity as deep as the situation permits.
From The Big Sleep: “She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin, too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy.
‘Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.
‘I didn’t mean to be.’”
Marlowe’s flirtations are received and returned but “getting the girl” is not a common plot feature; which is actually refreshing, as the sexual tension often builds the suspense without taking over the moment.
From The Lady in the Lake: “She had a smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and in the right place.”
Tobacco smoke wafts through scenes in clouds; cigarette lighting rituals reveal character.
From The Lady in the Lake: “He leaned his thumb on the bell and juggled a cigarette out of his pocket with one hand and put it between his lips. He turned away from the door to light it and the flare of the match cut deep lines into his face.”
Alcohol does not concern itself with the time of day; throats burn with ever-present bottles of booze. Marlowe drinks throughout. Inebriation loosens tongues. It takes a few slugs of whiskey to get this lady’s memory settled.
From Farewell, My Lovely: “’You ain’t no copper,’ she said softly. ‘No copper ever bought a drink of that stuff. What’s the gag, mister?’ She blew her nose again, on one of the dirtiest handkerchiefs I ever saw. Her eyes stayed on the bottle. Suspicion fought with thirst, and thirst was winning. It always does.”
I think it’s safe to say that Philip Marlowe has become a cultural icon. He has shown up in old-style radio broadcasts, in movies, and on television. Some of the greatest actors of the last 70 years have portrayed Marlowe; much as the famous personalities created by William Shakespeare have been portrayed by a variety of actors for centuries, including Patrick Stewart. These include Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, and James Garner.
As with Hamlet, Richard III and other Shakespeare creations, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe has undergone an evolution, of sorts, on screens big and small. In 1973, Elliott Gould played Marlowe in The Long Goodbye but the setting moved to 1970s LA.
Danny Glover proved the resilience of the idea of Marlowe-ness transcending race through his portrayal of the private eye in 1995 based upon Marlowe’s short story “Red Wing.” In 1998, James Caan played Marlowe in Poodle Springs, Chandler’s last unfinished book completed by Robert B. Parker in 1989.
And, just last year, affirming that Philip Marlowe continues to thrive, Liam Neeson played the role based upon the 2014 book, The Black-Eyed Blond by John Banville. In this case, Banville returns us full circle to 1939 LA. (Banville is one of many authors who continue to grow Philip Marlowe). Despite the fun of a Philip Marlowe movie, I’ll hold Chandler’s originals up to these guys any day. Next up for me is The Little Sister (1949).
*https://topanganewtimes.com/2023/10/20/patrick-stewart/ **Raymond Chandler wrote a few short stories before publishing his first novel, The Big Sleep, and hints of Philip Marlowe can be found among these pages.