Monday, September 22, 2014

Sex and the Hard-Boiled Private Eye

A woman friend of mine once read a story I’d written and gently made the observation that one of my female characters was less a real member of the fair sex than a male fantasy. I’m not the only male writer to have this complaint leveled at him. Both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, progenitors of the hardboiled private eye genre, paint women characters who are scheming, devious, untrustworthy, manipulative and dangerous. And they are all smoking hot, too. A male fantasy, or a nightmare, female sexuality in these writer’s hands becomes perhaps the most polluted and corrupt thing in a polluted and corrupt world. And while all the women in these books (and movies, for that matter) are really hot—Ida Lupino, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman type hot—the guys can get away with ugly mugs like the one on Humphrey Bogart.

My question is this: are these writers, or at least their protagonists, misogynists or merely misanthropists? That is, is all mankind corrupt, and female-kind just corrupt in its own particular way? Do the characters of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade fail to connect in any meaningful way with humanity in general or women in particular? Or, finally, is it just the city that is corrupt and corrupting, and there is somewhere sunlit and green where men and women can live in a kind of prelapsarian innocence?

Of course, you might say that all this started when Eve tricked Adam into eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (or was it Good and Evil? I can never remember, but I’ll bet you a woman could tell you). She had more smarts than her hubby, and it wasn’t that hard to fool the good-natured but dimwitted fellow. And I am sure Eve was pretty hot, and Adam knew that the marital strife not complying would cause just wasn’t worth not biting into the silly piece of fruit (or so he thought).

I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that the femme fatale is less a reality than an expression of male fears about the power of female sexuality which, left to run riot, we all know, would lead to the destruction of civilization. But again the question asserts itself: Are Chandler and Hammett misogynists? Are Marlowe and Sam Spade?

Sexuality of all kinds in both these authors’ hands becomes grotesque and dangerous. In THE BIG SLEEP, a homosexual liaison is all mixed up in the main plotting, and Marlowe refers to it as disgusting. In THE MALTESE FALCON, Spade describes Cairo (Peter Lorre in the movie), a swarthy “Levantine” who apparently has a pederastic relationship with the gunsel Wilmer, as effete and debauched, walking with mincing steps and lisping, as if his sexuality was mixed up with the East, with heathen religions and Communism and barbarism and was even more degraded and degrading than the ugly night-time San Francisco the characters chase each other around in. Gutman, or the Fatman (Sidney Greenstreet in the movie), is an asexual glutton whose appetites are for everything but sex, as if he was some kind of sex addict that sublimated all that lust into the desire for bon bons and that Maltese Falcon.

In THE LONG GOODBYE, Marlowe has the chance for a relationship with Linda Lorring, but he turns it down. Not because he thinks she is evil, but because he doesn’t think that men and women can really have relationships that last. He says to her, in response to her asking him if he has something against marriage: “for two people in a hundred it’s wonderful. The rest just work at it. After twenty years all the guy has left is a workbench in the garage.” So much for romance.

The only male “friend” Marlowe has in THE BIG SLEEP or THE LONG GOODBYE is Bernie Ohls, and the fact that Ohls is a cop means they can never truly be friends without compromising each other. And so Marlowe is completely alone. I don’t know if you can say that Chandler believes that men and women are equally venal, as he only has one female character in either novel who has any redeeming qualities at all—Vivien Sternwood and Linda Lorring–and both of them are a bit vain and spoiled and certainly manipulative. Then again, Marlowe is pretty manipulative too. I do think you can say that both Marlowe and Spade believe that men and women can’t ever stay together beyond that initial rush of passion–love being like a high fever that finally passes, only to leave you scarred with children and mortgage payments. The ephemeral nature of passion, and the fact that their differences outweigh any commonalities that might exist, cause men and women to remain forever apart (except when they have sex, which is the only time they manage to cooperate about anything).

Spade is unlike Marlowe in that he has both a partner and a secretary. His partner, Archer, is a bad apple and is killed by Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale, and Spade does not miss him, especially since he has been bedding Archer’s wife. It’s interesting that Spade does not take the proper measure of Archer and instead gets involved in a partnership with him. Especially since Spade is such a sharp guy, always a step ahead of everyone. So much for male friendship. Spade has made himself a “sap” for another man, in a way, but he knows enough not to trust O’Shaughnessy.

O’Shaughnessy beds Spade, or the other way around, as each one hopes to learn something from the other. Things even get a little kinky, as in the scene where Spade, not sure whether O’Shaughnessy has stolen a hundred dollars, makes her strip naked to prove she hasn’t. She claims to be humiliated, but you get the sense that she is hoping her bare flesh will help her to manipulate him. In the end, while it may have been true that as each one played the other each one also hoped that what they had could be real, Spade out maneuvers the femme fatale and sends her up for the murder of Archer. He tells her that maybe he fell for her, but he has to stick up for Archer, and that he won’t be a sap for her, and he echoes Marlowe when he describes what he thinks relationships between men and women consist of: [suppose I’m nuts about you] “What of it? Maybe next month I won’t be. I’ve been through it all before. When it lasted that long.”

The closest relationship Spade has is with his secretary Effie Perrine, who is steadfast and loyal, but who is described as boyish, and says of Mrs. Archer, “You know I think she’s a louse, but I’d be a louse too if it would give me a body like hers.” She gives it to Spade straight, and she is the only one he is honest with. She is the first one we encounter in the novel, and her conversation with Spade ends it. She had been hoping that O’Shaughnessy was innocent, and that for once Spade’s cynicism would not be confirmed, but of course it is not: “So much for your woman’s intuition….she did kill Miles, angel.” And Effie, seeing in the paper that Spade has turned her over to the police, says: “I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

In THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE it sometimes seems that it is not men or women who are to blame for the gender war, but sexuality itself. At other times, both Chandler and Hammett seem like founding members of the HE-MAN woman haters club. Now if only someone would write a novel where the detective falls in love with a good girl who is also hot. Or at least warm.

And I’m only half kidding when I say that. The mistrust of women be Spade and Marlowe comes off as seeming, in the end, as kind of adolescent. Women are some exotic and dangerous species to be bedded but never trusted. And with that approach, if you can really pull it off, you may never get played for a sap, but you end up alone. If anyone has Effie Perrine’s number, could you give it to me?

c © 2014 Mike Welch


  1. William J. Coughlin, a federal judge and prosecuting attorney in Detroit, delightful author of over a dozen sizzling crime novels, gave us some of the most fascinating roles of well-educated but sexy women in the lineup of American literature! His women were usually a combination of keen brains and femmes fatales! Thelma Straw

  2. Don't get me started on the subject of cherchez la femme, Mike. Men demonize women, when in reality they are the ones responsible for most of evil. Two quotes:

    One my own, if I may. "He cleaved to the conviction of many priests--that women were the source of all evil. It was true, she thought petulantly, if you considered that women were the source of all men." City of Silver

    The other much more important observation from the brilliant Margaret Atwood: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."