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Philip Marlowe Meets Vincent Calvino

‘..A man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.’

I have studied two novels featuring detectives whose work is based upon a personal code of honour, integrity and morality. ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler is set in Los Angeles in 1938, while ‘Spirit House’ by Christopher G Moore is set in Bangkok in 1992. Both novels, to some extent, reflect the statement of the title in that the detectives are so committed to their honour and integrity that they are often left exhausted and physically and emotionally isolated.

Chandler creates Marlowe as an honest man with old-fashioned pride and honour in a world with few noble values; ‘His values are of another age, amid the relative valuelessness of the present.’ [1] Marlowe assumes the anachronistic status of a chivalrous knight in several different ways throughout the novel. We first begin to see the imagery of Marlowe’s knight figure in the opening chapter reflected in the Sternwood mansion window; ‘...There was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady...’ (Chapter 1, Page 1). The knight in this description represents Marlowe, where the lady represents Carmen Sternwood, showing Marlowe’s role of nobly carrying out the order and his job, given by General Sternwood, to protect his daughter.

Another key aspect of ‘The Big Sleep’ which highlights Marlowe’s character as a chivalrous knight is through the logical game of chess. Marlowe plays chess alone, recognising that he is a man ‘out of time’; ’Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights..’ (Chapter 24, Page 170). At Geiger’s, Marlowe is again required to act on his chivalry to dress Carmen and take her home. This line also portrays the society Marlowe had to face, a world dominated by criminal ‘kings’ and ‘queens’, highlighting the corruption within Los Angeles. Only a man of honour can contemplate such a challenge.

The character of Calvino is shown to actively need and seek the help of his best friend Colonel Pratt, his assistant Ratana and an ex-lover, Kiko. Despite this need, Calvino does demonstrate a sense of loneliness; ‘-you can cling to the edge of life alone, but it is impossible to reaffirm it alone.’ (Chapter 13, Page 162). Calvino faces loneliness through his personal emotions, especially living within the corruption of Bangkok, but also as a foreigner where he encounters several problems that Marlowe does not. However, unlike Marlowe, Calvino approaches and deals with his orders and problems with the help of allies; Calvino also admits that he is not able to retain his job as a private detective without the help of Colonel Pratt. His honour is therefore an attribute dependent upon others, much more so than Marlowe.

In contrast, the chivalrous knight that emerges through the character of Marlowe is also demonstrated by Marlowe’s own independence. Marlowe always tackles any problem on his own, because he is cynical and not able to trust anyone; everyone is considered a potential criminal. Marlowe is a strict man with integrity, which is portrayed within his personal life, towards society and also towards his clients. This results in his isolation, both physical and emotional; ‘I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.’ (Ian Rankin – Page VI). Marlowe therefore isolates himself in the corrupt society of Los Angeles and fiercely upholds his own moral conduct as part of this integrity. This means that he must lead a lonely life because he is not able to find a companion that he can trust. He accepts it as part of his existential existence; it is unavoidable, even when he is in need of advice, support and reinforcement. His instinctive sense of honour is at the heart of this.

Nevertheless, Christopher Moore also creates the character of Calvino as a wise man, who has a degree of integrity, with, or without the assistance of others. Calvino is aware of the corruption that surrounds him and the danger he encounters; ‘I’ve been hired to take that risk.’ (Chapter 13, Page 168). Calvino is committed to his job as a private investigator, but also towards his clients, retaining his honour and admiration as a character, and is determined to follow through his orders, despite the consequences. However, admiring the great work of Chandler, Moore admits; ‘The idea of a private investigator searching for justice in a system corrupted by wealth and power is something that I must confess owes a debt to Chandler.’ (Christopher G Moore, contacted via email). From this we can begin to understand the similarities between the two detectives, but also the key characteristics which Chandler believes creates a true detective from ‘The Simple Art of Murder’

The location of each novel can also be seen almost as another character that helps shape the novel. Both, Bangkok and Los Angeles can be translated as ‘City of angels’, which is ironically subverted through both novels. Marlowe faces the world of Los Angeles as an alienating environment in which he does not belong, a society filled with criminals. 1930’s America was a period of the Great Depression, which Chandler continuously portrays; ‘The most striking development of the great depression of 1929 is a profound scepticism of the future of contemporary society among large sections of the American people.’ (C.L.R. James). [2] We begin to understand Chandler’s motif in the opening page of the novel where despite his integrity and contempt for corrupt wealth, Marlowe needs to be ‘dressed up’ having to visit the opulent Sternwood Mansion. Money is a constant factor in Los Angeles that leads many characters to corruption and criminality. Chandler’s cynicism towards this society is made clear. No character, not even a man of the law, is exempt as the police can also be bought; ‘I dare say the Grand Jury would like to know what those reasons are.’ (Chapter 18, Page 122). From this we can understand that Geiger’s bookstore was allowed to operate by the police for their own immoral and unethical reasons. Marlowe’s immorality disapproves, but his sense of integrity to his client is further evidence of his sense of honour.

Calvino’s cynicism is also exemplified predominantly through the novel’s location, with the felony and corruption that is embodied within. Bangkok is also seen as a pivotal character shaping the novel. Christopher Moore admits that the location in which Calvino exists is purposely set to be able to portray the hard-boiled detective character; the deception and misdeed that surrounds Bangkok is always apparent; ‘Asking if there is corruption in Thailand is like asking if there is dough inside a bakery.’ (Chapter 3, Page 40). Calvino’s character is therefore shaped by the society he has to exist in, a world of drugs, murder, dope dealers and high-class call girls. Subverting normal issues of morality, Calvino, like Marlowe, is unwillingly forced to act within these illegal parameters, mirroring such crimes of murder, enabling him to fulfil his duty; ‘Calvino used both hands to drive the ball-point pen through his eye.’ (Chapter 8, Page 104). In both novels, we begin to see that a new ambiguous morality exists in such cities, where characters with integrity will often break the law to do what is morally ‘right’. However, even though both detectives exist in a world they do not belong in, this is part of their integrity and honour; ‘He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.’(Simple Art of Murder). [3] Marlowe is one of the few exceptions within the corruption of Los Angeles, yet still finds a way to retain his integrity and admiration. Unlike Marlowe, Calvino faces a new society and culture, and consequently is regarded as a foreigner. Nevertheless, Calvino is still able to obey his moral conduct and codes of honour.

As the novel progresses, Calvino is more susceptible to the cruel actions of other characters, where we begin to unveil the side of redemption enclosed within Calvino, such as the ‘Katoey’ for his own safety, although he feels that is his downfall. Marlowe’s integrity is such that like Calvino, he feels he has failed; ‘Me, I was part of the nastiness now.’ (Chapter 32, Page 250). After ‘saving’ Carmen, Marlowe believes he is now part of the corruption Los Angeles faces, however we as readers, disagree and believe that he has gained redemption by breaking the law for the benefit of Carmen, and his loyalty towards General Sternwood. His honour is naturally embodied within, Marlowe shows no sense of being proud in what he does and why, it is just his role in life.

We can see a similar level of honour through Calvino towards his family, but also Kiko; ‘It’s too dangerous..’(Chapter 12). Calvino is aware of the dangers he may encounter, but does not allow Kiko to also have to face the risk; ‘if he is a man of honour in one thing, he is that in all things.’ (The Simple Art of Murder). [3] Calvino portrays his honour in several ways, despite the order he has been given, he is not able to let the dangers reach elsewhere, his honour and credibility acts upon this; ‘Hewn from the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler model, Calvino is a tough, somewhat tarnished hero with a heart of gold.’ (Mark Schreiber). [4]
Chandler’s proficiency in creating an ideal mood of both surroundings and character is illustrated largely through his writing style. Chandler is continuously providing individual and imaginative descriptions of locality, primarily with the use of weather; ‘The rain drummed hard on the roof of the car... In spite of the rain, or perhaps even because of it, there was business done at Geiger’s.’ (Chapter 6, Page 32). From this we can understand Chandler uses such the pathetic fallacy in these descriptions and techniques enabling him to foreshadow situations. This technique is widely used within other texts of Chandler’s mirroring the same intention; ‘It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way--but not as far as Velma had gone.’ (Farewell, My Lovely. Chapter 41.) In this novel, Marlowe is in search for a lady named ‘Velma’, an order given by Moose Malloy. Chandler again uses the weather as a tool to be able to create and predict the situation he encounters. This has a substantial effect on us as readers, being able to gain a deeper understanding of Chandler’s intentions through the power of his imagination and vocabulary; ‘Readers care little for action. What they care about is the creation of emotion through dialogue and description’ (Raymond Chandler, 1949) [5]

The writing style of Christopher Moore can also be largely compared to Chandler’s in shaping his novel. The cynicism and ironic wit is present throughout Moore’s writing style to reinforce and reflect Bangkok’s corruption, but also the personalities of characters; ‘He threw them something they hadn’t expected. Vulnerability, honesty, and blind, stupid truth-telling.’ (Chapter 6, Page 69). Like Chandler, Moore is continuously playing on ambiguous sarcasm, yet still keeping the reader aware of what he intends to portray.; ‘It’s easy to see why Moore’s books are popular: While seasoned with a spicy mixture of humor and realism, they stand out as model studies in East-West encounters, as satisfying for their cultural insights as they are for their hardboiled action.’ (Mark Schreiber, The Japan Times) [6] Moore’s writing style is such that, largely, he creates the realism of Bangkok through the wit and intelligence of Calvino.

Chandler’s most apparent and, ultimately, effective writing style is his approach towards language; ‘Neither of the two people in the room paid attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.’(Chapter 6, Page 36). Immediately we begin to understand Chandler and his use of vernacular to unveil the irony and derision which exists throughout the novel, largely reflecting Marlowe’s contempt for his opponents. Chandler is driven by clever wit, creating the character of Marlowe to be ‘a man with words’ constantly playing on sarcasm; ‘You’re not careful enough, I said. That play with Geiger’s books was terrible.’(Chapter 14, Page 86). Here Marlowe demoralizes- rather than fights- Joe Brody; Marlowe’s only battle is verbal and mental. This is one of Marlowe’s key strengths- to be able to endure the society and crime of Los Angeles by rising above violence and defeating his enemies with his wit alone. It is not unreasonable to guess that Marlowe represents much of how Raymond Chandler wished he himself could be.

Marlowe is not driven by money, then but honour. He takes a minimum wage, and does not seek to join in the capitalist scramble for power, wealth and status. As a result he cannot be exploited and does not seek to exploit other in a Marxist way, i.e. to gain prestige and control; ‘I’d like to offer you your money back. It may mean nothing to you. It might mean something to me.’ (Chapter 30). Calvino reflects this too only using the wealth that he gains in order to be able to obtain information towards his order given. Where it is also believed that being able to exist in Bangkok is to be able to ‘purchase’ your way around. Both detective’s honour and integrity is predominantly shown through this, where they are the only exceptions that are present in two societies that face an economic destruction and citizens have become corrupt criminals.

Both detectives are to an extent ‘..men of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.’ Marlow’s integrity is so strong that he is incapable of behaving otherwise; this is established by Chandler’s style of providing him with the most powerful, creative and hard-hitting language, a vernacular which sets him above all others. Calvino certainly has these qualities but less so; modern society is harder to live in, and Calvino is forced to compromise to exist within society, and this is reflected in the voice Moore gives him. Marlowe sets himself outside society by rejecting wealth and influence. Calvino does not ‘say it’, yet Marlowe goes further, ‘saying’ that his honour has in fact failed, and that he is ‘part of the nastiness now’. As readers we know that he is being far too hard on himself.


[1]- Jerry Speir “Raymond Chandler”, Ungar, 1980 – Pg 143

[2] - Great depression; BookRags Media Network

[3] - Simple Art of Murder;

[4]- Mark Schreiber;

[5] - RC 1949

[6] - Mark Schreiber;



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