God and Man and Philip Marlowe

The weather had been scorching, so when the rain came, it frothed across the streets and sidewalks like someone had tipped over a giant beer truck.  My shoes echoed wetly down the fake marble tiles of the sixth floor of the bank building on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga, and I heard my heart beating as I knocked on the door to his office.

Inside, he sat behind a shop-worn wooden desk.  Even sitting down he looked tall, and broad-shouldered as well, and under one of them was probably a gun.  He was filling his pipe and glanced over his horn-rim glasses and asked me what he could do for me.  He pointed with his chin towards a chair opposite him, and I sat down.  He lit his pipe and puffed vast clouds of Pearce’s black Cavendish.

As I explained what I was looking for, he relit his pipe and pulled open a desk drawer and took out a bottle of Kentucky bourbon.  He splashed a couple fingers into two glasses and handed me one.  As I put down my glass, I noticed that the beads of rain on the windows glistened like old pearls.  Then I noticed that all that was left of him was the lingering aroma of pipe smoke and the tang of bourbon.

On the blotter on his desk was a little hardback book, the dust jacket reproducing a painting of Sunset Boulevard around 1940.  It was called Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life, and as I opened it and saw the copyright date of 2005, I was back in my own room.

Compiled by Martin Asher, Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life collects quotations from the novels by Raymond Chandler.  Chandler (1888-1959) published seven novels about Philip Marlowe, a fictional private investigator in Los Angeles, California.  The first, The Big Sleep, appeared in 1939; an eighth, Poodle Springs, was unfinished at the time of Chandler’s death.  In 1988 Chandler’s estate commissioned Robert B. Parker to complete it.

Asher arranged Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life alphabetically, and under M we find “Marlowe, Philip,” and Marlowe’s description of himself as “a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. . . . I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. . . . I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley, . . . nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.”

Under B, we note his eye for blondes:  “It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

Under C we learn of Marlowe’s love of coffee, “yards of coffee.  Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved.  The life-blood of tired men.”

Such a collection, at seventy-five pages, cannot comprise all one’s favorite lines.  In The Little Sister (1949), Marlowe needs to question a powerful Hollywood agent, Sheridan Ballou.  Marlowe has a low tolerance for pretentious nonsense, and when he is ushered into the great man’s presence, where in his posh inner sanctum lackeys hover at his beck and call, Marlowe is unimpressed:  “I forgot to bring my prayer book.  This is the first time I knew God worked on commission.”

In Playback (1958), Marlowe meets a wise old man, Henry Clarendon IV, in a hotel lobby in mythical Esmeralda, California.  When Clarendon asks him if he believes in God, Marlowe, not believing in a divine puppet-master, replies, “If you mean an omniscient and omnipotent God who intended everything exactly the way it is, no.”  Clarendon then muses on the afterlife, admitting that he finds talk of Heaven “rather dull,” but equally, he has trouble imagining Hell, where “a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo.”

Critics debate how much of Chandler emerges in his characters.  Chandler, in a letter dated 7 January, 1945, wrote that Marlowe, “a simple alcoholic vulgarian, . . . has as much social conscience as a horse.  He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter.”  Furthermore, “Marlowe doesn’t give a damn who is president; neither do I, because I know he will be a politician.”

Marlowe’s political views occur in his Guide to Life under “Cops”:  “In one way cops are all the same.  They all blame the wrong things.  If a guy loses his pay check at a crap table, stop gambling.  If he gets drunk, stop liquor.  If he kills somebody in a car crash, stop making automobiles. . . .”  As for crime, Marlowe says, “Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom.”

Marlowe is aware of his own deficiencies.  In Farewell, My Lovely (1940), he takes stock.  He says he needed “a drink . . . a lot of life insurance . . . a vacation . . . a home in the country.”  Instead, “What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun.”  He left out his personal code of chivalry, a candid sense of decency driving his role as a kind of knight rescuing damsels in distress, even though the damsels are often the ones causing the distress.

In Playback, the distressed and distressing damsel Marlowe has been hired to find marvels at him, “How can such a hard man be so gentle?”  Marlowe tells her, “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”

Regarding life, aficionados of the Sherlock Holmes stories insist that Holmes has never died.  For proof, they point to the fact that his obituary has never appeared in The Times of London.  By that reasoning, Philip Marlowe is equally immortal, no notice of his death having been in The Los Angeles Times.

As I flipped through Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life, the smell of eucalyptus on a warm evening came back to me.  Once again I watched Marlowe as he unlocked the door to his second-floor apartment, and for a moment he waited there, not turning on the light, just sniffing the smell of the rooms he called home:  “A homely smell, a smell of dust and tobacco smoke, the smell of a world where men live, and keep on living.”


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.


Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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