Refugees from the Past

James Meek

  • Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality by Fredric Jameson
    Verso, 87 pp, £12.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 1 78478 216 0

We think of immigration as a movement in space, from one country to another. In conventional terms, those who were born in the United States are American; those who were not are immigrants. They were born in another country, in another culture. They bring with them from their homeland certain habits and values, shared assumptions and common experiences – certain prejudices, perhaps. They face nativist hostility; a frequent bigotry is that they can be generalised about as if they were all the same. If they were born in the US to non-native parents, they are ‘second-generation immigrants’. They have lived an authentically American experience, yet they carry the memes of foreign culture learned on their mother’s knee, at their grandparents’ table on feast days, from the strange old books and ornaments brought from the old country. They know the words of old songs. It may even be that second-generation immigrants, feeling discriminated against, misunderstood and rejected by America, seek to immerse themselves in the culture and ideals of their parents’ homeland, fabricating a hybrid identity for themselves based on an acquired reality they have never actually lived through, debased, idealised and simplified from the original.

The same could be said of another set of immigrants: those who have made the journey through time rather than space. Just as America has never been ethnically more diverse, it has never been such a melting pot of ages. In the great cities and airports, in the suburbs and projects, among the young millennials who’ve never been anywhere but the present, you will see people in their nineties who have travelled to the second decade of the 21st century from a strange, faraway land, the America of the 1920s. Millions of Americans – some of them never having changed their spatial addresses – have survived a long and perhaps difficult journey to modern America from their birth-time in the America of the 1930s and 1940s.

If spatial immigrants find it hard to assimilate, they feel rejected, whereas temporal immigrants feel usurped. For spatial immigrants, the old country is thousands of miles away in another place, whereas for temporal immigrants, the old country is right there, buried under the new one, and they have no way of digging it out, except through revolution, or the ballot box, or, if the right guy should come along, a revolution and an election at the same time.

The journey from the mid-20th century to now was slow, imperceptibly slow; there is no Ellis Island on the way from youth to old age, no Rio Grande. If you were born in the America of 1926, how many Americas have you lived in? Two? Three? In such a socially and technologically dynamic society as America’s, it seems inevitable that a form of passage closely related to the immigrant experience occurs; and that some children and grandchildren of temporal immigrants from the 1940s, like second and third-generation spatial immigrants, have an idealised, simplified identification with that era, acquired not at first hand, but from their parents and grandparents’ songs and stories of the old country, and from fake nostalgia, a kind of temporal patriotism, fed by cultural products like old movies, which we can’t help seeing as a ‘real’ portrayal of their time.

The six novels Raymond Chandler wrote between 1939 and 1953 featuring the Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, and the best-known film adaptation of any of them, the 1946 movie of the first book, The Big Sleep, have helped to shape the perception of what America was like in the 1940s and early 1950s. The film is dark and menacing – Fredric Jameson writes that Humphrey Bogart, who plays Marlowe, ‘is distinguished from the other stars of his period in that he is able to show fear’ – but also glamorous, romantic and politically safe. The novels, still widely read yet less influential in popular culture than that one film, are different. In their relative unfamiliarity we may find it easier to distinguish the melodramatic and the exaggerated from glimpses of the actual era. They portray mid-century America as a place it seems anyone would seek to emigrate from, or hope to grow out of: mean, vicious, violent, corrupt, cynical, up to its eyeballs in alcohol, motivated by primal lusts and rigidly divided by wealth and by an ugly set of racial and gender codes.

In order for a character’s personhood, their human individuality, to be foregrounded in these novels, they must be white and have a surname that is either Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Scandinavian or Celtic: Marlowe, Riordan, Sternwood, Ohls, Morgan, Conquest, Potter, Petersen, Haviland. A small number of characters with names that are vaguely Euro-Catholic are grudgingly brought into individual focus: Canino, Brunette, Florian, Menendez, Agostino, Vannier, Palermo, Degarmo. Otherwise, a person is a member of another race before they are a person:

The fat greasy sensual Jew with the tall stately bored showgirl … A tall handsome white-haired Jew … The fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess … An old Jew in a tall black skull cap … a big burly Jew with a Hitler moustache … He had just grinned at me with his wise Jew face … a group of negroes chanted and chattered … Heads turned slowly and the eyes in them glistened and stared in the dead alien silence of another race … Hooey Phooey Sing – Long Sing Tung, that kind of place, where a nice-mannered Jap hisses at you … I saw a Jap gardener at work weeding a huge lawn. He was pulling a piece of weed out of the vast velvet expanse and sneering at it the way Jap gardeners do … He had a sort of dry musty smell, like a fairly clean Chinaman.

There aren’t female characters in Chandler so much as hair colours: blondes, non-blonde women young enough for Marlowe to feel obliged to assess their attractiveness, and beings of indeterminate hair colour, a sign of their transition from one of the sexually available genders – blonde, brunette, redhead – to a space defined as beyond gender, old age, like Jesse Florian in Farewell, My Lovely, who ‘had weedy hair of that vague colour which is neither brown nor blonde, that hasn’t enough life in it to be ginger, and isn’t clean enough to be grey’.

When Marlowe meets the journalist Anne Riordan, the nearest Chandler comes to creating a female character not entirely defined by her relationship to men, the first thing he says by way of conversation is to tell her what colour her hair is. ‘Your hair’s red,’ he says. ‘There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays,’ Marlowe muses in The Long Good-Bye. ‘All blondes have their points …’ He enumerates a detailed taxonomy of blondes in order to point out that Eileen Wade, whom he’s ogling in a ritzy bar, is a hair-being of a higher order. ‘Her hair,’ he has already noted, ‘was the pale gold of a fairy princess.’ In The Big Sleep, Marlowe visits the Missing Persons Bureau to scope the files on a missing couple, the ex-IRA freebooter Rusty Regan and his lover, the wife of the racketeer Eddie Mars. In the course of a seven-page chapter, she is referred to as ‘blonde wife … Mrs Mars … wife … frau … blonde … girl … torcher … vague blonde … blonde’. It’s not until 140 pages later that we find out she has a name of her own: Mona.

The blondes, redheads and brunettes are inclined to declare their lust for Marlowe early. ‘My God, you big dark handsome brute! … I loathe masterful men.’ ‘Don’t act so hard to get. You have a lovely build, mister.’ ‘What makes you so wonderful? … I’d like to be kissed, damn you!’ But Marlowe must beware, for the desires of women are toxic and contaminating. In the novels, men may kill, but – meta-spoiler – in each book’s ultimate level of revelation, there is a woman murderer. ‘The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets,’ the detective rages at the reader, after a client’s daughter has snuck naked into his bed at home and he has sent her away. ‘You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.’

There is a consolation: men. Men, and the manly virtues of fighting, smoking, heavy drinking, never showing weakness or ‘womanly’ emotions, companionship, and, most importantly, the exchange of abusive zingers:

‘You can talk, cheapie. I been looking over some acts for the floor show.’

‘You could cut your throat for one.’

‘What would I do for an encore?’

‘Men’ means real men, not what Marlowe refers to as ‘pansies’, who can be either actual homosexual men or the handsome, ineffectual, mercenary young fops (Jameson calls them ‘gigolos’) who prey on rich blondes and the subsidiary hair-types. ‘A pansy,’ observes Marlowe, as he enters into a long, intimate fight with the young lover of the murdered blackmailer Geiger in The Big Sleep, ‘has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.’ Perhaps these days we’re too ready to find homoerotic subtexts in what seem to us exaggerated displays of masculinity in the literature of the era of oppression, but what are we to make of episodes like the one towards the end of Farewell, My Lovely in which Marlowe, wandering among the sleazy nighttime entertainments of a beachfront resort, bumps into a big stranger, ‘Red’, who offers, for a few dollars, to take him somewhere he needs to go? Marlowe describes him as having ‘eyes like a girl, a lovely girl … he had a plain farmer face, with no stagey kind of handsomeness.’ They journey together out into the Pacific to a dangerous place, an offshore casino, forming a quick and powerful bond. ‘He took hold of my hand. His was strong, hard, warm and slightly sticky. “I know you’re scared,” he whispered.’

After the first four Marlowe novels, published in quick succession (The Big Sleep in 1939, Farewell, My Lovely in 1940, The High Window in 1942 and The Lady in the Lake in 1943), there was a gap of six years before The Little Sister appeared in 1949, reflecting Chandler’s other career as a screenwriter (he wrote The Blue Dahlia and shared credit for the adaptations of Strangers on a Train and Double Indemnity). By the time the last Marlowe novel of substance, The Long Good-Bye, appeared in 1953, the implications of Freud and the Holocaust have begun to seep into the detective’s psyche.[*] What in Farewell, My Lovely had been merely an ambivalent hint of sarcasm towards a cop, a hint of rebellion against racist norms – ‘“Well, all he did was kill a negro,” I said. “I guess that’s only a misdemeanour”’ – now mutates. We find Marlowe conversing, albeit in a master-servant way, about T.S. Eliot with a black college graduate. By the time we get to The Long Good-Bye, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department has acquired a Hispanic captain whom Marlowe feels able to call ‘a cool, competent, dangerous guy’. Marlowe explicitly questions (to us, at least) LA’s anti-Semitic residency restrictions. He achieves something approximating intimacy with a woman; he forms a deep Platonic attachment to a man an earlier Marlowe would have derided as being of the pansy-gigolo type. He converses with a Chandlerian alter-ego, a commercially successful, alcoholic genre novelist, Roger Wade, who tells him: ‘The queer is the artistic arbiter of our age, chum.’ We approach the border between one America and another, as if Marlowe and his fellow Americans are about to make the passage through Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan and Stonewall and become immigrants, relieved, resentful, assimilated or otherwise, in the country on the other side.

*

What does Fredric Jameson make of all this? The following parenthesis, and no more:

(The least politically correct of all our modern writers, Chandler faithfully gives vent to everything racist, sexist, homophobic and otherwise socially resentful and reactionary in the American collective unconscious, enhancing these unlovely feelings – which are, however, almost exclusively mobilised for striking and essentially visual purposes, that is to say, for aesthetic rather than political ones – by a homosexual and male-bonding sentimentalism that is aroused by honest cops and gangsters with hearts of gold, but finds its most open expression in the plot of The Long Good-Bye.)

Jameson is interested in historical change in America, and in what Chandler’s novels can tell us about it. (He believes, as he explains elsewhere, that ‘only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism.’) But the temporal border between the two Americas that interests Jameson isn’t the one marked by questions of gender, sex and race: it’s marked by an intensifying cycle of consumption and obsolescence, by the mutation of the public and private realms, and by the corruption that perpetuates inequality.

It’s hard to pin down a ‘now’ in Jameson’s new work to contrast with a Chandlerian ‘then’, because Jameson’s isn’t exactly new, as he explains in a disarmingly candid footnote: The Detections of Totality is what he calls a ‘synthesis’ of three essays published in 1970, 1983 and 1993, in the US, France and Britain respectively (his admission to publishing a not thoroughly rewritten work may explain why, on the first page, he declares The Big Sleep Chandler’s ‘best novel’, while towards the end he writes that Farewell, My Lovely is ‘surely Chandler’s best book’). When Jameson writes about ‘a crisis in American literature at present’, it’s not clear which present, in the 45-year gestation of this 87-page book, he means. But he names the period between the world wars as the time of its greatness, and the period after 1945 as the era of its decline. He grounds the problem in socioeconomic change. The older America, he argues, was a patchwork of heterogeneous locales, each with rich internal ties and well-worn social roles; in the new America, writers struggle to draw material from a homogenised country, where individuals, families and social classes are isolated in private space, making choices from a standardised, corporately controlled set of possibilities. Chandler’s work might have been rooted in the ‘great’ era of literature, were it not that Los Angeles was an early adopter of the form the new America would take: ‘a new centreless city, in which the various classes have lost touch with each other because each is isolated in its own geographical compartment’.

Jameson’s embedding of Chandler’s Los Angeles in the Marxist narrative of late capitalism and commodity fetishism is persuasive and compelling. But it’s odd that a political reading of a novelist’s work should pass so lightly over such political areas of discourse as gender, race and sexuality when in Chandler they’re so prominent. Certainly it’s tough for a critic who seeks to draw a border between a former and a contemporary America where, in the crisis of late capitalism, things have got manifestly worse – as the crossing was made from Progressive America to Neoliberal America – to recognise at the same time that in terms of civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, things have, at least until now, got manifestly better.

By choosing only a single axis of oppression – by passing over what he describes as ‘unlovely feelings’ expressed for ‘aesthetic’ purposes – Jameson evades readings that would incorporate, say, class and race together. The mainly black district of LA seen in the opening of Farewell, My Lovely, for instance, and the blacks-only bar where the giant (white) ex-con Moose Malloy breaks the neck of the (black) manager Montgomery, correspond economically to one of Jameson’s spaces of the dispossessed. The (white) policeman who’s assigned to his case, Nulty, is poor too – ‘poor enough to be honest’, Marlowe observes – in a mean little office. But by his attitude towards the murder – feeling himself oppressed to be told to investigate the murder of a black man – he shows himself aligned with the actual oppressors. Talking to Marlowe about the killing, he uses three different contemptuous terms to refer to blacks – ‘shine’, ‘smoke’ and ‘dinge’. The power to name is important in Chandler: it confers authority. But anything that is possessed may also be lost. Nulty lays his power of language out boastfully (Marlowe confines himself to ‘negro’). The implication is that such eloquence as Nulty has is dependent on the preservation of the racial status quo; that for him to treat the races equally would be not only to deprive him of overt power but to impoverish his power of speech, to subtract permanently from that essential part of himself that consists of racism; that it is impossible for black people to gain dignity without their white oppressors losing self. It may be that those Americans who emigrated joyfully and hopefully from the old America of the 1940s into the new America of civil rights were outnumbered by those who came as refugees from the past. ‘When we left the old country, we were forced to leave everything behind. They even took our racist vocabulary.’

*

There was a strange moment, as I reread The Big Sleep, when I felt the familiar first-person narrative voice of Philip Marlowe suddenly replaced, or doubled, by Bertie Wooster. Marlowe is coming round from being beaten up: ‘Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house.’ Chandler’s and P.G. Wodehouse’s schooldays at Dulwich College weren’t far apart, though they never met. Chandler, born in Chicago in 1888, returned to the US in 1912, aged 24, eventually becoming a senior executive in an oil company before he was fired in 1932 and turned, late in life, to writing for a living.

Chandler’s reacquaintance with the American language after an English private school education defined his style. Jameson compares him to Nabokov, as a writer in a borrowed tongue: ‘Language can never again be unself-conscious for him.’ His trademark comparisons, so often imitated and parodied, have kept their vividness. ‘The boy stood glaring at him with sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat.’ ‘She opened her mouth wide and laughed her head off without making any more sound than you would make cracking a breadstick.’ They are developments of Chandler’s preoccupation with non-verbal expression; he requires of his characters a rich range of facial and bodily messages, like a director micro-directing actors, so that I found myself practising the motions described in order to visualise them. ‘He put his hand out palm up and cupped the fingers and rolled the thumb gently against the index and middle fingers.’

The novels are hurried forward through complex and sometimes nonsensical plots in terse sentences, short chapters, rapid changes of scene and sections of mutually abusive dialogue lit up by Chandler’s distinctive marque of slang. Chandler once mocked Eugene O’Neill for using the expression ‘the big sleep’ in The Iceman Cometh as if it were a real gangster term: Chandler had made it up. Jameson quotes Chandler on his approach: ‘I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good,’ Chandler wrote. ‘Slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself.’ Much of the dialogue, Jameson argues, is made up of clichés and stereotyped patterns, but it is energised by tension between wary strangers, kept apart by the atomisation of life in the new America:

The various solitudes never really merge into a collective experience, there is always distance between them. Each dingy office is separated from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one next to it; each dwelling from the pavement beyond it … the most characteristic leitmotif of Chandler’s books is the figure standing, looking out of one world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another … this figure on the doorstep represents Suspicion, and suspicion is everywhere in this world.

Between the dialogue, the action, the fierce eye and ear of Chandler fastening on each cadence and fingernail and accessory of his characters, there are moments of intense experience of place that are both sensual and precise. Chandler has a genius for the rare and obscure prose skill of putting exactly the right number of atmospheric elements in place to enable the reader both to grasp a topography and feel a mood:

We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.

For Jameson, the novels, beyond their form as plots and stories, are a set of spaces – a constellation of discrete, isolated workplaces and dwellings he calls the ‘offices’ of the poor, the wealthy and the police. Their co-ordinates in the socioeconomic universe are expressed by the degree of luxury and decay in the objects they contain, the only lines linking them drawn by Marlowe the detective – a pattern reflecting the disaggregation of families and individuals in a society defined by consumption. The reader’s sense of ‘totality’ in Chandler, the work’s sense of completeness and closure, is given by the contrast between the diffused inequality of Los Angeles portrayed in Marlowe’s ‘cognitive map’ and nature as a whole, in the form of rain, the lonely canyons that pierce and surround the city, the desert and, in particular, the great ocean, travelled over at the end of Farewell, My Lovely. Nature stands as surrogate for the counterpart of history, the non-space that is death. In Chandler, without death, Jameson says, society has no resonance, and no ground.

Jameson points out that the canonical Marlowe novels share a single master narrative. It is based on deception, like a shell game, in which the reader is made to watch a place where they think the heart of the story is, when it is, in fact, elsewhere. The reader follows the detective on a series of murder mysteries, only to find out, in the end, that the book wasn’t really about solving murders at all, but about the resolution of a search for a missing person whose fate, apparently determined at the outset, turns out to be radically otherwise. He who was thought to be alive turns out to have been long since dead; he who was thought to be dead turns out to be alive; she who was thought to be one person turns out to be another. These final revelations by Marlowe don’t efface the detective’s earlier, more banal murder mystery-solving – in these final revelations, a murder is always involved – but instead transform the reader’s perspective on the nature of violent death in general:

One character has simply been transformed into another; a name, a label, has wavered and then gone to fix itself to someone else … the attribute of being a murderer can no longer function as a symbol of pure evil when murder itself has lost its symbolic qualities … in Chandler the other random violence of the secondary plot has intervened to contaminate the central murder. And by the time we reach its explanation, we have come to feel all violence in the same light.

Jameson is a difficult writer. His style is modular rather than linear. He can be stirring or profound or both without necessarily being lucid, and create exquisite stanchions of lucidity that seem to forever await the crossbeams that would tie them together. He introduces a rush of 20th-century critical concepts – Algirdas Greimas’s semiotic square, György Lukács’s idea of ‘totality’ – without either offering the non-specialist a consensual approximation of what they are, or where, at this point in a long career (he is 82), in a field rife with narrowly fought disagreements and refinements of earlier opinions, he has set his own definition. With his title Jameson projects himself, the critic, into Chandler’s fiction, hinting at a sleuth-like quest for an object, Totality. The interest of Chandler-plus-Jameson is the chance to follow the real Jameson’s detections in Chandler’s fictional world, but at the same time to make the journey in the opposite direction, to allow at least the possibility that the lack of anything resembling a fictional Jameson in Chandler’s Los Angeles suggests a rewriting of The Detections of Totality itself.

*

As a private detective, it’s Philip Marlowe’s job to find things out: to gain knowledge. But his relationship to knowledge is of a particular kind. He’s 33 when The Big Sleep opens. He has no family. He was born in Santa Rosa, where perhaps he went to school, and he went to college. He is, in the classification of modern demographers, a ‘white, college-educated male’. Yet he acts as a stereotypical resentful, conservative, tough-guy autodidact, wanting to show he knows the nap of culture country, quick to make categorical cultural judgments, and quick to mock erudition or anyone else’s intellectualism as pretentious and effeminate.

He knows Eliot, Pepys, Austen. He quotes Richard III. He rates Flaubert (‘His stuff is good’); Hemingway, not so much:

‘Who is this Hemingway person at all?’

‘A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.’

He knows his grammar:

The voice grew icicles. ‘I should not have called you, if it were not.’

A Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood.

He doesn’t like abstract art:

I lit a Camel, blew smoke through my nose and looked at a piece of black shiny metal on a stand. It showed a full, smooth curve with a shallow fold in it and two protuberances on the curve. I stared at it. Marriott saw me staring at it.

‘An interesting bit,’ he said negligently, ‘I picked it up just the other day. Asta Dial’s Spirit of Dawn.’

‘I thought it was Klopstein’s Two Warts on a Fanny,’ I said.

He thinks women whose hair has a low melanin content risk becoming unattractive to men if they read challenging texts:

There is the pale, pale blonde with anaemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provençal.

He doesn’t like Soviet orchestral music:

At three a.m. I was walking the floor and listening to Khachaturian working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it.

This is only the beginning of Marlowe’s knowledge. He possesses a fantastical power to name the things of the world – an astonishing vocabulary of plants, fashion and interior design. Sherlock Holmes’s knowledge of the smallest distinctions of the surface world is explicitly won by study and neo-academic forms of research, yet to Marlowe it comes unmediated, unexplained, as if from within. ‘A rather too emphatic trace of chypre hung in the air,’ he notes. He detects the scent of eucalyptus trees and wild sage. He names wild irises, white and purple lupin, bugle flowers, columbine, pennyroyal, desert paint brush, begonias, acacia, winter sweet peas, poinsettia. In one short passage in The Big Sleep he identifies juniper logs in a fireplace, walnut in the wainscoting, and a dozen kinds of hardwood in the parquetry, ‘from Burma teak through half a dozen shades of oak and ruddy wood that looked like mahogany, and fading out to the hard pale wild lilac of the California hills’. In The High Window, while hiding behind a curtain, overhearing a powerful hoodlum and his wife discussing how to make the death of the man she has murdered, and whose corpse is in front of them, look like suicide, Marlowe manages to note that she ‘wears pale green gabardine slacks, a fawn-coloured leisure jacket with stitching on it, a scarlet turban with a gold snake in it’. He also speaks Spanish.

Sometimes there is information even Marlowe can’t get from interviewing people or from within himself, but he’s never obliged to consult an expert. If he can’t find what he needs in the Hollywood Public Library he accesses a network of contacts who can pull up a deed or a case file for him. Implicitly, this is in return for past favours, but such favours have left no trace on Marlowe of supplication or persuasion or dependence. These easy-peasy data-gathering forays are like the popular modern fantasy of the internet as an enchanted knowledge machine which, if you know the magic words, will yield the answer to any question.

At the end of each novel, all knowledge has drained out of the landscape and into Marlowe. The occasional journalist knows nothing compared to him, and there are no teachers, no professors, no poets, no critics, no politicians, no intellectuals, no priests, no thoughtful well-read friends, only the silent, absent grandmasters whose past games the solitary detective replays on his chessboard. There is a hint that were an academic to appear, he would not be well received. ‘Everybody’s done something to be sorry for,’ a woman journalist who briefly appears in The Lady in the Lake tells Marlowe. ‘Take me. I was married once – to a professor of classical languages at Redlands University.’

The nearest thing in Chandler to a manifestation of learned knowledge and the agents of the theoretical is the ‘law’, a vast, amorphous network of police and sheriff’s officers and district attorneys and forensics men, mainly corrupt but with random patches of honesty, shading on one side into the judicial and incarceration system and Death Row – although we never see a courtroom or meet a judge or a lawyer, apart from the DA – and on the other side into organised crime, the mobsters whose own enforcement operations may be sanctioned by crooked cops. This law is lightly tied to its ideal, written form. ‘Like a lot of people that read a law book,’ says a cop of Marlowe when he tries to stand on his rights, ‘he thinks the law is in it.’

Jameson could enter the text under any circumstances, but as it is, the knowledge imbalance between the solitary free agent Marlowe, who knows all that is worth knowing, and the deintellectualised remainder of Los Angeles, creates a space of utter freedom for the critic to deploy his semiotic tools. (Oddly, Jameson doesn’t mention the only challenger to Marlowe’s monopoly on knowledge, the writer Roger Wade, whose work, naturally, Marlowe describes as ‘tripe’.)

To read Chandler-with-Jameson might be a hybrid literary encounter, with the critic entering Chandler and rewriting the fictional Marlowe into his political scheme, and Marlowe entering Jameson’s book and endowing him, the critic, with a kind of fictional aura, as a character missing from his world. But it doesn’t seem to me that Marlowe can get in. I’m not sure whether Marx foretold a type like Marlowe, but as we meet him he is already packing up to be forced to cross the 1960s into the future, with his few possessions and his personality, isolated, filled with suppressed rage and violence, proud, intensely, self-consciously masculine and white, a drinker, hardworking, a lover of wisecracks, convinced of his own basic virtue and his sense of right and wrong, angry with women and the rich, disdainful of the poor, believing power to be corrupt, sure that he already knows everything worth knowing and that if he doesn’t, it is to be found with a swift bout of internet-style searching. There is space for Jameson in Marlowe’s world, but not for Marlowe in Jameson’s. In The Detections of Totality, Jameson is busy communicating with a host of others like him, out of sight, some dead, some alive – Greimas, Lukács, Heidegger, Hegel, Goffman, MacCannell, Jakobson, Bloch, Hebel, Barthes – even though Jameson is master of language enough, and great enough of intellect, to have long since assimilated these conversations to his own discourse, and to have addressed Marlowe one to one. To Marlowe it is reminiscent of the untrustworthy, sprawling empire of ‘experts’ and their codes that make up the Law. He turns away. He buys a pint of whisky. He gets in a fight. He goes home to the chessboard and broods over his next move.

[*] A seventh Marlowe novel, Playback, based on an unproduced screenplay, appeared in 1958. At the time of his death the following year from an alcohol-related illness, Chandler had written the first four chapters of an eighth, The Poodle Springs Story.