Philip Marlowe and Nero Wolfe


Sixty years after the death of Raymond Chandler, and eighty years after the publication of his first novel, we mark the first anniversary of a brilliant achievement, The Annotated Big Sleep.  In 1939, Chandler (1888-1959) published The Big Sleep, introducing a fictional Los Angeles private investigator, Philip Marlowe, and in 2018, Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto produced an edition with Chandler’s text on the left-hand pages and their explanatory notes on the right-hand pages.  Also illustrating this volume are maps, photographs, and excerpts from other stories by Chandler.

Unlike a biblical commentary, where obvious passages can get lengthy deciphering and obscure lines get passed over, The Annotated Big Sleep tackles it all.  It is amusing that some readers, apparently, will need to have defined for them slang such as “swell’ and “jalopy,” or standard words such as “bookplate” and “davenport.”  Most captivating is information about firearms and newspapers, about bygone fashions and obsolete automobiles, as well as the vanished landscape of 1930’s Los Angeles.

Moreover, our annotators identify in The Big Sleep allusions to Arthurian legend.  In The Big Sleep and subsequent novels, Marlowe casts himself as a latter-day knight errant, with his own code of chivalrous integrity, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress, even if the distress is of the damsel’s own making.  In The High Window (1942), a medical doctor admiringly calls Marlowe “the shop-soiled Galahad.”  Marlowe is unmarried, and in The Big Sleep, set in 1938, he is thirty-three.  With Marlowe, Chandler tapped into an archetype in Western literature, the solitary young hero, embodying virtue and virility.

Early in the novel Marlowe meets his new client, General Guy Sternwood.  Marlowe arrives in a blue suit, and as narrator, he says, “I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober.”  A note explains that phrase as an Army expression meaning “ready for inspection.”  Much of Sternwood’s military career would have been in the late 1800s, when American soldiers wore blue uniforms.

The general is around eighty, and declining health has him soaking up the tropical heat and humidity inside a greenhouse on his vast estate.  Surrounding him is a veritable jungle of orchids, and our annotators provide a note about early twentieth-century orchid collecting and orchids as “symbols of wealth and decadence.”  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto seem to miss is Chandler’s Baroque critique of one of his great contemporaries in crime fiction.

In 1934, Rex Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first of seventy-four tales featuring a fictional private detective, Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe is a native of Montenegro, in his fifties, and a wealthy eccentric:  an arrogant misogynist gourmet, he lives in a nineteenth-century brownstone townhouse in New York City; on its roof are greenhouses for his 10,000 orchids.  Wolfe almost never leaves his house on business, his investigating being done by a trusty young assistant, Archie Goodwin.  Goodwin reports his findings to Wolfe, who then mulls them over and thus identifies the guilty party.

Sternwood hiring Marlowe parallels Wolfe sending Goodwin out to gather evidence and question witnesses or suspects.  Nevertheless, Sternwood is the inverse of Wolfe:  Whereas Wolfe weighs in at 300 pounds, Sternwood is thin and frail as a mummy.  A retired Army officer, Sternwood could take on his blackmailer himself, if only age and health permitted; Wolfe, once a spy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, chooses to stay home and eat and read and tend his orchids.

Wolfe, Goodwin, and Marlowe are in a long tradition of bachelor detectives, and nosy neighbors and literary critics spend valuable time speculating about any bachelor’s sexuality.  Probably for that reason, Stout made a point of depicting Goodwin as a ladies’ man.  Dutifully The Annotated Big Sleep addresses recurring musings and guesses about Marlowe’s sexuality, maybe unrequited bisexuality, while touching lightly on the general’s mention of his own “gaudy life,” one he indulged in before marrying at age fifty-four.

In a line that could merely be an opening gambit in an awkward interview, but one that reads all too much like part of a secret password, Sternwood asks Marlowe, “Do you like orchids?”  When Marlowe answers, “Not particularly,” Sternwood obliquely agrees and condemns his myriad expensive flowers.  “They are nasty things,” Sternwood replies, adding, “Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Prostitutes do not feature in The Big Sleep, unless one counts a homicidal rent boy, but in Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe refers to them.  In Chapter 17, Goodwin, impetuous in his arrested adolescence, decides against going to a movie, and Wolfe declares, “Then try a harlot’s den.”  In the entire Wolfe series, it appears to be the only hint at Wolfe possibly having an illicit sexual outlet, while the simmering sensuality of the tropics always looms above him on his rooftop.

People of Victorian or Edwardian sensibilities would have regarded orchids not only as exotic, but often as obscene.  One variety in particular, Cypripedium, sometimes called slipper orchids, can raise eyebrows, their lurid pink and purple “slipper” resembling, shall we say, “the flesh of men.”  Cypripedia occur in Stout’s novels Black Orchids (1942) and Murder by the Book (1951), and an even more noticeably male anatomical subspecies, Paphiopedilum, occurs in Some Buried Caesar (1939).

Of course, sometimes an orchid is just an orchid, and Stout’s stories are rattling fun, the resourceful Goodwin sauntering forth into the big wicked city, while Wolfe presides over the mayhem like a wise, if irascible, hermit.  Chandler, though, was no fan, writing to a friend in April, 1949, not “to lump me in . . . with the smooth and shallow operators like [Ngaio] Marsh and [Rex] Stout and [Agatha] Christie.”  In June, 1957, he wrote to another correspondent that “I count myself far above” Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout.  In The Big Sleep, with any tropical plant possible for Sternwood’s greenhouse, Chandler is all but saying, “Here is how you launch a mystery story, a knight’s quest, from a bower of orchids.”

Chandler’s writings show his detailed fascination with the fragility of polite society, the thin veneer of respectability covering tawdriness and corruption.  His novels are notorious for convoluted plots and complex characters, and in 1995, his works joined the prestigious Library of America, acknowledging his place in the pantheon of American literature.  Like a guidebook to a national monument, further affirming that reputation is The Annotated Big Sleep.

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.

Next Article

Getting (Being) Old

No Comments

Leave a Reply