What is it about Philip Marlowe and female foils? A biographer reimagines his legacy. BY JUDITH FREEMAN September 29, 2020
For some time, I’ve imagined writing a novel titled The Port of Missing Women, a term I came across while doing research for my biography of Raymond Chandler, The Long Embrace. It refers to the many young women in Los Angeles who were suddenly going missing—and often turning up murdered in grisly ways. Coincidentally or not, many of these murders occurred in the years right after World War II, when a large number of servicemen were returning from overseas through the port of Los Angeles and finding, no doubt, that in many cases the women they had left behind were not the same as those they encountered when they returned. The war years had given women new freedoms in the way they acted and dressed and socialized, in part through jobs outside the home in the defense industry and other sectors of the labor force.
There were over a dozen instances of young women disappeared and murdered. The most famous case was the murder of the so-called Black Dahlia, a young raven-haired woman named Elizabeth Short. Short’s body was discovered on January 15, 1947, drained of blood and neatly severed in two, her internal organs surgically removed, her mouth cut from ear to ear in a grotesque smile. It was a murder unlike any the city or country had ever seen, and it shocked and unnerved people for a very long while, as the murderer taunted authorities with notes while evading detection. The killer was never caught.
Reading about these murders as I researched Chandler, I realized these were not the sorts of crimes his detective Philip Marlowe ever confronted. Though there’s plenty of violence in Chandler’s work, the perpetrator is usually not a man but a woman: in six out of his seven novels, a female character commits the murder, and often in an extremely brutal way. The Long Goodbye’s Eileen Wade beats Sylvia Lennox’s face to a “bloody sponge” in a jealous rage, and in Farewell, My Lovely, Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle smashes Lindsay Marriott’s head to a pulp, leaving his brains on his face. Marlowe takes these women and their actions in stride as he goes about solving cases; often these are the very women to whom he ends up being most attracted.
What if, I thought, one could write a story where Philip Marlowe was called on in the postwar years to help solve the murder of a missing woman who, like Elizabeth Short, had been brutally murdered by a sadistic killer? A novel, in other words, that turned the tables and brought Marlowe back in an altogether different way, flipping the mirror and perhaps even looking at him from the perspective of a woman? I might use a first-person female narrator instead of trying to replicate Marlowe’s voice—a woman who could help him solve the case, perhaps a character who’d already appeared in a Chandler novel. From the moment I imagined such a story, I knew who that woman would be. She was standing right in front of me, in plain sight.
In all of Chandler’s novels and early short stories, only one female character is in every way Philip Marlowe’s equal. She is not a villainous “black widow” or a blond bombshell killer, not a lying rube from the Midwest or a thumb-sucking nymphomaniac. She is unlike any other woman Chandler ever portrayed, strong, smart, and independent—Anne Riordan from Farewell, My Lovely.
Anne is an unattached woman in her late 20s living alone in a little house in Bay City (Chandler’s name for Santa Monica), the daughter of a former police chief, an honest cop who was forced out when the gangsters “bought” the mayor (and the law). Now she is a budding journalist specializing in feature articles who describes herself as “just a damned inquisitive wench” with a “strain of bloodhound” in her.
Most important, Anne has Marlowe’s strong moral character, and I cannot think of another woman in the Chandler oeuvre about whom this could be said. She’s as good at bantering and tracking down clues as Marlowe is. The hint of romance between the two is there from the beginning—she likes him, as one cop explains to the detective, who replies, she’s a “nice girl” but not his type. He says he prefers “smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin.” But is this really true? I’ve always felt that this is simply Marlowe’s cover, the means by which he holds women at bay so he never has to take a chance on a truly intimate relationship. With Anne, though, he comes dangerously close in spite of himself. When he shows up at her apartment (where he finds nothing “womanish” about the decor) after being doped up and beaten at Dr. Sonderborg’s clinic, she cares for him and offers a bed for the night, at which point Marlowe looks around her living room and says, “A fellow could settle down here.” She brings him a drink, and briefly their hands touch as Marlowe holds her cold fingers for a moment, then lets go of them “slowly as you let go of a dream when you wake with the sun in your face and have been in an enchanted valley.” It’s as tender a romantic moment as you’ll find in a Marlowe story. But it doesn’t last. Marlowe can’t help but insult her with a wisecrack and ends up returning alone to his apartment, where he finds “a homely smell, a smell of dust and tobacco smoke, the smell of a world where men live, and keep on living.” The italics are mine. But they say so much. Marlowe feels safe only in his man cave.
Almost everything that has been written about Chandler has been written by men—the biographies (except mine) and most of the essays and reviews. The three novels sanctioned by the Chandler estate that have revived Marlowe as a character are Robert B. Parker’s completion of Chandler’s unfinished last book, Poodle Springs; Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde; and most recently Lawrence Osborne’s Only to Sleep.
However you feel about such efforts, these writers have soldiered on with Marlowe as white knight, putting him through the rigors of sleuthing in what feel like familiar, Chandleresque plots, and they have done so by assuming the detective’s first-person voice.
This, of course, is a tall order, this business of replicating Marlowe, because with Chandler, voice is everything. His books have endured because he was a great literary stylist, and the means of developing and refining his style was Marlowe’s personality, so distinct, as it turns out, as to be nearly impossible to reproduce. Chandler never cared much about plot, as everyone knows. It was the slow, steady accretion of realistic detail that mattered to him: the crack of Marlowe’s wit, the Pacific rolling in lazily like a washerwoman waddling toward shore.
All three novelists—Parker, Black, and Osborne—chose to cast a woman as the villain. Osborne’s killer, Dolores Araya, is a particularly nasty bit of business who not only murders her husband but also cuts away his face so he can’t be recognized. And yet the elderly Marlowe (he’s 72 in this story) finds her very attractive and would have made a bid for her if only his “pilot light” hadn’t been snuffed out by age.
If the women Marlowe encounters are evil enough, then his unavailability is rational. But what would happen if someone like Anne Riordan, not just a smart woman but also an intrinsically good one, were to engage him on real terms? What if, instead of falling for a ruthless female, Marlowe were to encounter a more realistic scenario, in which women were not the perpetrators of violence but the tragic victims?
If you’re going to decide to have Marlowe marry, as Chandler did when he began work on Poodle Springs, why not let him fall for a truly interesting woman instead of a cardboard cutout like Linda Loring, the wealthy, shallow playgirl with whom he finally ties the knot, even though he’s pretty sure the marriage isn’t going to last six months?
When Chandler made the decision, a year or so before he died in 1959, to have Marlowe marry Linda, he was in the dark, waning days of his own life, which had taken a sad turn after the death of his wife, Cissy, five years before. Chandler had always fancied himself and Marlowe as the sort of men who rescued women. His marriage to Cissy, who was, unbeknownst to him, some 18 years older, more or less replicated his life with the long-suffering mother to whom he had devoted assiduous care until her own death. (He married Cissy two weeks later.) Both women, he believed, needed deliverance—his mother from the ruin of her marriage to his alcoholic father, who left them when Chandler was just seven, and Cissy from an unsatisfactory second marriage.
The fact is, these two women were nothing alike. His mother was a wounded, controlling presence, a chronically unhappy person so cruelly shamed by her relatives for marrying an alcoholic that they refused to serve her wine at their dinner table after she returned, penniless, to live with them. She never remarried and instead clung to her son, as to a lifeboat in her own darkened sea.
Cissy, meanwhile, was a much lighter spirit. The Chandlers’ 30-year marriage was in many respects a happy one, in spite of his drinking spells, which seem to have led to affairs. Cissy always forgave him. Always took him back. In return, he adored her and doted on her endlessly. She kept him sane and able to write; he kept her on a pedestal. And when she was gone and he decided to get Marlowe married, it was because he “thought it was time Marlowe was given something worth having, some love of his own.”
As critic John Bayley wrote, “Chandler may have thought that the notion of Marlowe succumbing eventually to a woman’s charms would be a good way for both writer and reader to bid him a graceful goodbye.”
But was it really a “graceful goodbye”? It never felt that way to me. Chandler didn’t live to finish Poodle Springs. He left only a rough version of the first four chapters. And in the version Parker completed for him, Linda Loring never seems to have the sorts of charms worth succumbing to; her most prominent attraction is her $8 million. She’s not much more than a pampered and vapid caricature.
Anne Riordan does, however, have real charms. She is that something worth having Chandler imagined for his detective. She’s like Cissy, down to her red hair. She’s the kind of smart, witty woman Chandler chose for himself.
Anne Riordan first meets Philip Marlowe when she’s driving alone one night, as she likes to do, and comes upon a murder scene in a dark canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway. Marlowe, who has been hired as a sort of bodyguard by a man named Marriott, gets conked on the head and comes to as a small coupe pulls up and a woman steps out, holding a flashlight and a gun. It’s Anne, who has discovered the battered body of Marlowe’s benefactor; the detective doesn’t yet know his client is dead. Anne has no idea who Marlowe is or whether he’s had anything to do with the grisly crime she’s discovered. A marvelous scene between Marlowe and Anne ensues in which she matches his toughness and resolve. She says,
“Listen, stranger. I’m holding a ten shot automatic. I can shoot straight. Both your feet are vulnerable. What do you bid?”
“Put it up—or I’ll blow it out of your hand!” I snarled. My voice sounded like somebody tearing slats off a chicken coop.
“Oh—a hardboiled gentleman.” There was a quaver in the voice, a nice little quaver. Then it hardened again. “Coming out? I’ll count three. Look at the odds I’m giving you—twelve fat cylinders, maybe sixteen. But your feet will hurt. And ankle bones take years and years to get well and sometimes they never do really—”
I straightened up slowly and looked into the beam of the flashlight.
“I talk too much when I’m scared too,” I said.
What strikes me about this opening scene is how Anne’s lines could have come out of Marlowe’s mouth. That’s how alike they are.
Anne has the cool of a cop’s daughter. Not even a mutilated body can shake her. And yet there’s nothing cold or calculating in her way. She’s kind and thoughtful, vulnerable and honest, a fine detective and an independent spirit. By the time Marlowe discovers her waiting in his office the next morning, she has already made some important discoveries that will be essential to solving the case. Yet as the story unfolds, he keeps trying to distance himself, saying he’ll “play it solo.” She doesn’t give up, not even when Marlowe is drawn into the lusty web of Mrs. Grayle, “a blonde that could make a bishop kick a hole through a stained glass window,” with whom, on their first meeting, he indulges in a heavy make-out session while Anne waits outside in her car. When he rejoins her, Marlowe can’t help contrasting Anne’s “grave and honest little face” with that of the woman he’s just left. “Glamoured up blondes”—like Mrs. Grayle—“were a dime a dozen, but that was a face that would wear. I smiled at it.”
As the novel unfolds, so does what I suppose can be called their “friendship,” but Marlowe believes that Anne is always going to be disappointed in him. In the last scene between them, she kids him, saying how marvelous, how brave, he is, how he works for so little money while constantly being batted over the head. Then she looks at him thoughtfully and finally lets it spill: “I’d like to be kissed, damn you!”
We never find out whether Marlowe gives her that kiss. The scene simply ends. Earlier, when they are musing on Mrs. Grayle’s love life, Anne confesses to Marlowe that she’s never really had one herself. It’s possible she’s saying that at 28 she’s still a virgin. And in a funny way it’s possible that Marlowe is one as well. It sounds like blasphemy even to suggest it. But aside from making out, there’s never any indication that Marlowe is particularly active, sexually: there seem to be no women of consequence in his past, and only at the end of The Long Goodbye, after six (count them!) novels, does he finally go to bed with a woman, the heiress Linda Loring. And there is nothing at all sexy about that scene. When, late in Chandler’s final complete novel, Playback, Linda calls Marlowe from Paris, a year and a half after that first and only encounter, and proposes marriage to him, her first question is more or less “Remember me?” One could be forgiven for imagining that Marlowe might reply, “Sort of,” so little does their encounter seem to mean. Instead he’s lifted from his lonely funk by her proposal and her offer to send him a plane ticket to Paris, which of course his manliness requires him to refuse. Instead he sends her a ticket to fly to his side.
Marlowe has never been portrayed as anything more than ritually erotic. And maybe that’s the way we’d like to keep him. He is, after all, in “the hide-and-seek” business, and maybe there’s no one more hidden than Marlowe himself. Perhaps canned lust is all he will ever get served. He’ll stay frozen in his unavailability to preserve his hard-boiled shell.
But the truth is that Marlowe, like his creator, is actually a soft man, one who could evolve. In The Port of Missing Women, I see Marlowe returning to Los Angeles after a few disappointing years in Poodle Springs, a bit tenderized, perhaps, by the failure of his marriage to that smooth, shiny girl. Maybe Marlowe and Anne could finally have something, if only for a little while, as they solve a case together. It wouldn’t have to be a long affair. Just something worth having, as Chandler put it, some love of his own.
Judith Freeman is the author of eight books, including The Chinchilla Farm, Red Water, and the forthcoming MacArthur Park (Pantheon, October 2021). Her biography of Raymond Chandler, The Long Embrace, was named one of the best books of 2007 by Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. She lives in Idaho and Los Angeles with her husband, the artist-photographer Anthony Hernandez.
Illustrations by Mark Smith.