Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” but was already bored with the genre a year later, when he published its sequel, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” C. Auguste Dupin wraps up his first murder case rather neatly, and if modern readers’ knowledge of zoology renders that ending scientifically unsatisfactory in retrospect, we are still inclined to admire its aesthetic elegance. Certainly it paves the way for Arthur Conan Doyle’s delightful Sherlock Holmes cases, whose solutions are nearly always handed gingerly to the reader, wrapped up like a Christmas gift. Detective stories, quite often, are the theodicies of rationalist atheists: The reader is faced with a world of confusion and death, before being assured that an extraordinary intellect can untangle the strings and right the world’s wrongs.
Is it any wonder that the genre’s popularity boomed after the first World War, when global confusion was on the rise and faith in traditional religion was on the wane? Agatha Christie, a recent New Yorker article alleges, chose the mystery genre primarily because she was nearly guaranteed that a detective novel would be published. The Western world, clearly, was hungry for the assurances of order these novels provided. In many ways, the detective in fiction is a perfect distillment of the values of the Modern era: He is witty, rational, and able to see through layers of deceit with relative ease. The detective protagonist is how twentieth-century man imagines himself in his more self-flattering moments: urbane and cool, with faith in no one but himself. It should come as no surprise that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were voracious readers of detective novels, even before film noir changed the game; mystery fiction portrayed the world the way an intellectual atheist at the time would want it to be. (The Catholic detective fiction of G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers is more reaction to the genre than participation in it.)
By the time of Christie’s greatest popularity, however, the formula had grown stale. One of the deepest pleasures of the Holmes stories is trying to figure out the answer to the mystery before Doyle reveals it outright. Christie makes such ratiocination nearly impossible: Her endings often seem to come out of nowhere, with a trail of clues so hidden that a bloodhound couldn’t sniff them out. The famous twist ending of Murder on the Orient Express–which I will not reveal here on the off chance that one of our readers doesn’t already know it–is one of the more obvious examples, but her novels are full of unguessable solutions, some of them of the “wallbanger” variety. Hercule Poirôt and Miss Marples, Christie seems to be saying, are much better than the rest of us, and the world is such a twisted mess that only they can make sense of it–the reader doesn’t have a prayer. This style of detective fiction is not without its charms, but it’s frustrating in a way that Holmes isn’t.
Film noir, and its literary cousin, the so-called “hardboiled” detective novel, provided a much-needed shock to the genre’s system. The stylistic differences are immediately apparent to everyone–Sam Spade is cynical and vulgar in a way that Holmes would never be–but the actual substance of the mysteries is different, too. The noir protagonist is lost from page one, or the opening credits, and the more he thinks he understands, the more lost he gets. This is especially true in the writings of Raymond Chandler, who perfected the hardboiled novel at about the same time as he put Los Angeles on the map as a place worth describing in literary fiction. There’s probably no twentieth-century American more responsible for blurring the boundaries between high and low art than Chandler, who was educated in the finest schools in England but returned to the States to write about dames, cigarettes, and crooked police departments.
The mystery is rather beside the point in Chandler’s novels. According to Hollywood legend, William Faulkner was writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep when he ran across a problem. “Who killed the chauffeur?” he asked. Chandler was forced to admit that he didn’t know either. The story is funny but telling: the whodoneit(s) at the center of Chandler’s novels take a backseat to the books’ overall mood, which is superb. As an example, I quote what is possibly the finest moment in Chandler’s career, taken from The Little Sister, a rather poorly plotted late-period novel:
I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about this trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car-hops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, staring up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the rain.
Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human tonight.
The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night.
I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed ’em and throw ’em out. Lots of business. We can’t bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. You’re using money space. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They’re just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe. . . .
I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.
This chapter is five pages of Chandler’s railing against his adopted hometown, a takedown so devastating that every pop-cultural critique of The Golden State from “Hotel California” to The Player owes an enormous debt to it. And none even comes close to matching it. Chandler’s words thrust the reader into the long-vanished Los Angeles of the 1940s; they remind us that the city has been a cesspool of gaudiness and corruption since long before the current debates over immigration, the recent budget crunch, and the reign of the Governator.
The corruption that surrounds Philip Marlowe is theologically significant; it suggests, perhaps, the Total Depravity of Calvinism, but Chandler lacks Calvin’s belief in a sovereign and benevolent God. In Chandler’s last completed novel, Playback, Marlowe is asked if he believes in God. His response is telling: “If you mean an omniscient and omnipotent God who intended everything to be exactly the way it is, no.” His interlocutor agrees: “If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. . . . Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?”
There is little reason to suppose these words do not represent Chandler’s own views on things, nor is there anything wrong with Chandler’s using his novel to promulgate these views. And yet real atheism inside a novel is, in a manner of speaking, impossible, for every novel always already has a god in its author, an entity which stands outside of its timeline and directs its action, for better or for worse. Even a novel that exists at least in part to promote atheism–such as, let’s say, John Fowles’s The Collector, one of the bleakest and ugliest books I’ve ever read–subverts its own point, at least in the world of the novel: Fowles can be an atheist, but Miranda can’t, because Fowles is her god. He may torment her and ultimately consign her to nonexistence, but he is still her god.
And this brings us back to “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”–and to Marlowe. Readers are likely to find Poe’s story frustrating because they are forced to spend 25-plus pages of very dense writing in pursuit of a solution that never arrives. The tale breaks off as Dupin finds a major clue (a boat that the detective claims will lead to the murderer), but the details and perpetrator of the crime are never revealed. If Poe himself knows, he’s not letting on. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that he does not know; “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is based on a real-life murder, that of Mary Rogers of Baltimore, whose killer or killers were never brought to justice. These events suggest not an atheistic world–after all, there is still an author who is writing about more-or-less actual events–but a world of a limited and forgetful god.
We find the same dynamic in that wonderful story about The Big Sleep. In the world of the novel and film, there is, presumably, a concrete truth about who killed the chauffeur; it’s just that that truth has been forgotten by the god of the novel, Chandler. Marlowe has the god of his universe just right: He is neither omniscient nor omnipotent, collapsing into an alcoholic haze of “very, very long,” very, very bad days. He is not so much Luther’s Deus Absconditus–there is no evidence to suggest that the god Chandler is actively hiding from his characters–as a Deus Obliviscitus, an oblivious god who cannot remember every detail of the world he has created.
No doubt there are those who would say our own world is ruled by such a god, and perhaps justifiably so. This god would be a negative version of the cold and distant watchmaker of Deism–and as that belief system collapsed into atheism sometime in the last two centuries, so would the god of the broken mystery story. But this atheism would be a million miles removed from the mechanically precise world of the nü atheists. It would be something far more interesting, an utterly incomprehensible world that never worked the way it was supposed to, a world divided between the corrupt politicians of 1940s Los Angeles and the impotent good guys like Marlowe who couldn’t help but get conked in the head every few chapters.