Issue 86, Winter 1982
He is not a lazy man, not a cruel man, not a sick, sad, or even unsuccessful man. He is just not the man I wanted to become.
He sits with his feet propped up on a desk reading a book. The room he reads in is narrow and unadorned, badly in need of first a soap-and-water wash to see what scraping and sanding and painting needs to be done. It is half full of unarranged boxes and cases of books. Next door (the door is roughly behind his head, midway down the right wall) there’s another room of identical size and grayness and here the books are neatly shelved (and the shelves are full) in accordance with the simplest system of classification he knows of: those books he likes are stacked along the far right wall; those he’s unsure of or hasn’t gotten to, down the center; and those he’s read and found wanting, along the left. Having read most of the world’s great books he’s now come to its mysteries and the book in his hand—Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake—like those piled up on his desk—Hammett, Stout, Gardner, MacDonald—is about to go up along the left wall.
For one overriding reason. Every detective novel he’s ever read (he would exclude the British here and their parlor game treatment of the genre) has been an elaborate and wasteful and blood-spattered dodge on the part of the detective to keep from investigating himself. Phillip Marlowe should ask himself why he needs a crime and a criminal as positively as he needs air and food; so should Lew Archer. Nick Charles (strange, his own name is Charles, his son’s name is Nick), once he gets the gin bottles cleared away, should inquire why only during the heat of the investigation does he feel alive. The more labyrinthine the book’s plot the more labyrinthine the hero’s evasion and when the moment finally comes and the detective stands face to face with the misbred monster at the center he is farther than ever from being able to recognize himself. Right now (James Galway is playing Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto on the radio, past the picture window in front, the November day is a flute-light, flute-bright continuation of Indian summer) Phil-lip Marlowe is leading a bad cop named Degarmo up a mountain to the scene of the murder not because things are in doubt and he needs a confession but because he, Marlowe, hasn’t gotten enough, because Marlowe wants more, because the blood-sucking isn’t over until the last drop is gone. He—Marlowe, Archer, Charles, Gardner, Wolfe—should ask himself why.