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Literature / Philip Marlowe

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I'm a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I'm a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don't like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. 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 sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.

The Philip Marlowe series is the creation of Raymond Chandler, and an original Trope Codifier of the Hardboiled Private Detective archetype. While Marlowe's first official appearance was in the 1939 novel The Big Sleep, Chandler later adapted some of his short stories about similar detectives into longer novels.

In a World… of dirty cops, femme fatales, and a whole lot of murder, he faces the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles with nothing but a gun and his wits — and they're both pretty quick.

When he's not snarking or smoking, he enjoys a good game of chess or even some nice poetry.

Marlowe features in the novels The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953), and Playback (1958).

Several of Chandler's earlier short stories featuring proto-Marlowe characters were subsequently reprinted as Marlowe cases. Chandler wrote one original Marlowe short story, which was published under various titles but is most often reprinted as "The Pencil".note 

Besides Chandler's works, Marlowe appeared in seven novels - El Diez Por Ciento de Vida by Uruguayan writer Hiber Conteris, (translated as Ten Percent of Life), Poodle Springs (unfinished, completed by Robert B. Parker), Perchance To Dream (an original sequel to The Big Sleep, also by Parker), The Black-Eyed Blonde, by John Banville (under his crime-writer alias of "Benjamin Black"), Only To Sleep, by Lawrence Osborne, The Goodbye Coast by Joe Ide, and The Second Murderer by Denise Mina. There was also a 1988 short story collection to celebrate the centenary of Chandler's birth, by a variety of well-known crime and hardboiled writers.

Marlowe has appeared in no less than 10 film adaptions, even more television and radio programs (including Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, a limited series that aired on HBO from 1983-86 with Powers Boothe in the title role), and at least one video game.

Works about Philip Marlowe with their own pages:


Works by other authors


Philip Marlowe provides examples of the following tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Numerous characters in the books would qualify as alcoholics by today's standards. Marlowe himself drinks far too much, not without self-awareness on his part. In Farewell, My Lovely, he shows every sign of withdrawal even before he ends up going through involuntary detox at a shady sanatorium that also pumps him full of heroin. An example of Chandler writing what he knew, as is the far more out-of-control blackout drunk primadonna author Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye — also a harsh self-caricature of Chandler.
  • Call-Back: "The Pencil" guest stars Anne Riordan, who had last appeared years earlier in Farewell, My Lovely.
  • Cat Apult: In "Finger Man", when the villainous corrupt politician has Marlowe taken to his turf in order to threaten him, Marlowe tosses the villain's pet cat into his face and uses the distraction to grab his revolver and hold him at gunpoint.
  • Celibate Hero: Phillip Marlowe, unlike Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, was someone who usually avoided the attentions of the female characters in the books until Linda Loring. Anne Riordan notably spends the entirety of Farewell, My Lovely chasing him only to come up empty.
  • Chandler's Law: Used several times, as the Trope Codifier, but usually with some kind of twist.
  • Comic-Book Time: While Marlowe did get older as the decades rolled by, he didn't age quite as much as the intervening years between installments should have allowed for.
  • Consummate Professional: The defining quality of Philip Marlowe alongside being a Knight in Sour Armor and Deadpan Snarker. Philip Marlowe refuses to accept multiple contracts on the same job, more money than what he was offered, or violate his client's confidentiality. He cannot be bought, bribed, or intimidated into betraying his client or going off a case. Even when his clients are lying to him (and they always are), he's determined to show a great deal of loyalty to them.
  • Deadpan Snarker: And how. Practically every other sentence, whether spoken or part of Marlowe's Private Eye Monologue, is a barbed witticism or cutting observation.
  • Detective Patsy: In "The Pencil", Marlowe spends some time trying to figure out why his client came to him for help, and eventually puts together that he's being set up to take the fall for the murder he was supposedly hired to prevent, by some mobsters as payback for helping get one of their colleagues convicted and executed.
  • Dirty Cop: Many cops are on the payroll of local gangsters — or even if they're not, their bosses are.
  • Expy: Philip Marlowe, protagonist of Chandler's novels, is pretty much John Dalmas, protagonist of Chandler's stories for Dime Detective magazine, who is pretty much Carmady, protagonist of Chandler's stories for Black Mask magazine. To the extent that the Dalmas and Carmady stories were subsequently collected and reprinted with Marlowe's name substituted for theirs.
  • Faking the Dead: At least two of the novels have one of the murders (there's always more than one) turn out to be this.
  • Friend on the Force: Marlowe was formerly with the DA himself, still has contacts at headquarters, and occasionally befriends some of the more honest cops he meets. The only one to appear in more than one of the books, however, is Bernie Ohls, longtime investigator for the DA. Red and Lt. Randall, both of whom appear in Farewell, My Lovely, are mentioned in later books but do not reappear in person. "Red" Norgaard had quit the highly corrupt Bay City police force at the time of his introduction, but is later revealed to have been rehired before being drafted. Unseen Character Violets M'Gee is also namedropped several times, but only when Marlowe needs to give a reference to a big client.
    • Detective Lieutenant Ybarra in the radio series The Adventures of Philip Marlowe is a straightforward example. The character first appeared in the Chandler short story Red Wind, starring John Dalmas—which was later reprinted as a Philip Marlowe short.
  • Genius Bruiser: Marlowe is tall and about as tough as they come. He's also incredibly street smart, an intelligent detective, and has a classical education. He occasionally references some pretty academic subjects that usually confuse whomever he's talking to. His only real hobby seems to be playing chess.
  • Groin Attack: In "The Pencil", Marlowe is menaced by a low-ranking mobster who makes the mistake of getting too close, and Marlowe knees him in the groin in the course of taking his gun away from him.
  • Hardboiled Detective: One of the Trope Codifiers (along with Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade).
  • In Vino Veritas: While Marlowe can certainly hold his liquor, not everyone else can. A frequent tactic of his is to get people to talk to him when they're drunk.
  • I Was Never Here: In "The Pencil", Marlowe is paid a politely threatening visit by Grimes, a mob boss from Las Vegas. During the meeting, he tells Marlowe that in case Marlowe has any idea about going to the cops (or, for that matter, if it should become necessary that Marlowe doesn't survive the meeting), Grimes will be able to prove that he never left Vegas.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: He gets positively acidic by the time of The Little Sister and The Long Goodbye.
  • Lemony Narrator: Marlowe both unconventionally describes people and isn't above Leaning on the Fourth Wall.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Several times.
    • In The Big Sleep, he proceeds to let Carmine Sternwood off for the murder of Rusty Regan because she's insane. This is a Downplayed Trope because she is still to be committed to an institution by her family.
    • In The High Window, Phillip Marlowe once more demonstrates this quality by refusing to turn over any information about the Murdocks despite the fact that Leslie and his mother are both murderers.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Quite a lot of Marlowe's cases follow this pattern — he's hired to do something relatively straightforward (negotiate with a blackmailer, mind a missing woman) and as soon as he begins asking questions, everybody in the neighborhood with a dirty secret assumes he's after them and starts threatening him. Then, of course, he has to investigate them, just in case they're connected to his case.
  • Murder by Mistake: In "The Pencil", Marlowe is hired to help a man called Rosenstein evade a mob hit. While helping his client sneak out of the apartment building where he's been staying, Marlowe notices that one of the other inhabitants resembles his client, and later that man is killed by the hitman, who believes him to be Rosenstein. Subverted. The hitman's victim is the real Rosenstein, and the man who hired Marlowe falsely claimed to be Rosenstein in service of his own agenda.
  • Never Bareheaded: Set in a time when men were this. Can't go wrong with a classic fedora.
  • Non-Indicative Name: On its first publication in the US, "The Pencil" appeared under the title "Philip Marlowe's Last Case". This referred to the real-world fact that Chandler had died and no more Marlowe stories would be forthcoming; in the story itself, there's no hint of Marlowe hanging up his career.
  • Official Couple: With Linda Loring, once he meets her in The Long Goodbye. Chandler specifically created the character to be the perfect match for a man like Marlowe (a sort of "Princess In Sour Dress" to his Knight in Sour Armor). Appropriately enough, she's the first woman we ever "see" Marlowe in bed with. She appears again in the final scene of Playback (the next novel and Chandler's last finished one), and the unfinished The Poodle Springs Story (which Robert B. Parker finished, to dubious response).
  • Patchwork Story: The first four Marlowe novels are patched together out of Dalmas and Carmady short stories, with bits rearranged, merged, split and/or renamed.
  • Police Are Useless: Not as often as you'd think, though. The cops are often allowed to give as good as they get, noting that a large part of what's making their job so hard is people like Marlowe and his clients withholding information and trying to solve cases on their own terms in their own favor. Marlowe fires back with the fact that the police, even when they're not actually on the take, still have their hands tied by public opinion and political maneuvering. In later books he's philosophical about it — provided the other party isn't too self-righteous.
  • Posthumous Collaboration: Chandler's unfinished eighth Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, was finished by Robert B. Parker (of Spenser fame) and published in 1989. Generally dismissed by Chandler fans.
  • Private Detective: Marlowe, repeatedly called a cheap gumshoe. He's actually a skilled detective, but too principled and proud for his own good, meaning that he ends up losing out on both money and prestige for a lot of the easy but shady work that comes his way.
  • Private Eye Monologue: The Trope Codifier. Marlowe is a snarker par excellence, and also litters his descriptions of sun-bleached, grimy south California circa Chandler American Time with elaborate metaphor and borderline Purple Prose punctuated with hard-boiled slang.
  • Recurring Character:
    • Lt. Bernie Ohls, Marlowe's Friend on the Force in "Finger Man", The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.
    • Anne Riordan in Farewell, my Lovely and "The Pencil".
    • Linda Loring, Marlowe's romantic interest in The Long Goodbye, Playback and Poodle Springs.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Subverted with Marlowe's trusty .38, which he only sometimes carries, rarely fires, and frequently has taken away from him, one way or another. In the post-War novels, he switches to using a Luger semi-automatic.
  • Skeleton Key Card: It's mentioned in some of the stories that Marlowe carries a strip of celluloid in his wallet precisely for this purpose (this was in the days before credit cards).
  • Smart People Play Chess: Several of the books show Marlowe studying chess problems during his down time. (Although he's never seen playing an actual game, because that would presuppose that he had friends to play with.)
  • Smoking Is Cool: Marlowe starts out as a cigarette smoker, before switching to a pipe as he grows older and more thoughtful.
  • The Stoic: Though Marlowe does have his more human moments, these mainly occur when he's been truly pushed over the edge. The rest of the time, though, he manages to remain completely deadpan even as he's being beaten up by crooked cops or having guns waved in his face.
  • Talks Like a Simile: A feature of Marlowe's narration, originally because Chandler was being paid by the word but ultimately because Chandler started off writing historical romance and poetry, which ended up finding its way into his shop-soiled modern-day questing knight.
  • Tap on the Head: Happens quite often, almost Once an Episode, sometimes accompanied by a lengthy and poetic description of darkness washing over him as he loses consciousness. Did we mention Chandler was being paid by the word?
  • Third-Person Person: Marlowe as narrator occasionally refers to himself as "Marlowe" rather than "I," usually when he's being cheeky.
  • Vice City: Bay City is the location for a lot of Marlowe's adventures and it is a gangster ridden Wretched Hive full of prostitution, gambling, and Police Are Useless. It's also a Captain Ersatz for Santa Monica in the 1930s.