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My last post—about books that fundamentally shaped us—brought out a nice range of responses, showing the different mentalities and life-stories operating out there among The Twelve’s readership. Thanks for chiming in!

One of you observed how hard it is to confine the key books of our lives within any given age range, including the decade between 15 and 25 that I used in my post. True enough. We do morph and develop and take on new concerns and insights over time. So think of compiling a list of the top five titles you read in every decade since that one: from age 25 to 35, 35 to 45, etc. They might add up to a revealing sort of autobiography, no? Then mix in definitive movies and TV series, not to mention songs beyond those of the teenage and college years that we all so readily recall. The single most notable memory from all those sources for me was watching Chinatown at the Strand Theater in Hamden, Connecticut on a hot August night in 1974, and then watching Richard Nixon resign the presidency under threat of impeachment the next day. The resonances of corruption….

Roman Polanski was updating film noir in Chinatown, and perhaps that helped prepare the way for the first book I would put on my “later years” list: Farewell My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. Come to think of it, I had slurped up every black-and-white classic from the ‘30s and ‘40s that the various film societies at Yale were showing in my grad-school years: The Big Sleep, Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, His Girl Friday, on and on. Ok, I had a man crush on Humphrey Bogart, and I’ll be Rosalind Russell’s errand boy any day.

But Raymond Chandler—and with him all sorts of hard-boiled detective stories—exploded on me in very specific circumstances. It happened late in my first semester of full-time teaching. Thanksgiving break found me absolutely wrung out from three months of teaching three lecture courses from scratch. (Note to future self: maybe some student presentations? Directed discussions?!? Old self’s defense: Oh, you mean the strategies that were never modeled in all my education?) I didn’t go all Max Weber and take to sitting in a dark room for two years, but mentally I was done. The phrase sounds totally clichéd, but it was true—something drew me to the PS3505 section of the library, and for the rest of the term I survived by grading papers and exams as necessary, then diving back into the Los Angeles underworld for relief.

What was it about Chandler—Hammett and Cain, too, but Chandler above all—that was so enticing? For one, the ability to craft a sentence like his summary of his genre: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Then there is the not-so-slight echo of chivalric romance in those words; commentators regularly note that Chandler’s hero Philip Marlowe in manner and purpose as well as name is something of a latter-day knight-errant. There’s a downside to that, to which I’ll return in a bit. For now, let’s stick with the positive.

I’ve discussed before in this space some startling parallels between film noir and neo-orthodox theology. The most striking coincidence involves timing: 1944 saw both noir’s big breakout movies and the publication of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. If you want to delve deeper into the theological connective tissue between the two, feel free to hit the link above.

But I also think I was attracted to Chandler because his work strikes at a dialectical dead-end in American culture. Someone (John Gardner?) once postulated that there are only two basic stories in American literature: the homeboy hits the road, and the new kid comes to town. Two basic male story types, we must obviously add. But the typology is worth something, not least for calling up two endlessly repeated, tweaked, and re-purposed genres in American popular culture.

One is the Western, in which a young man hits the open road and follows it ever onward over the next mountain range. Our hero, so runs one classic explanation, is half outlaw himself but uses that craft and cunning to vanquish the pure outlaw so as to make the wilderness safe for civilization. That civilization, however, has no place for the man of violence, so off he must go seeking the next threat to subdue. Vintage Hollywood Westerns follow this script; so do Rambo and the movie formerly known as Star Wars, now franchised with a subtitle and #4.

“The New Kid Comes to Town” forms the core of the American success story, from its avatar Ben Franklin washing up on the wharf in Philadelphia to Horatio Alger’s country boys venturing into the Gilded Age city to the bright teeth of Joel Osteen purring of love and money and Jesus. Take Jesus out of the picture and you have the three icons of the genre. Our urchin cleans his face and his clothes so as to present a good appearance; so proves himself at work as to make a sufficiency (in some variations, a boodle) of money; and in the process acquires the girl who is the seal, as money is the sign, of his rise. Thus he lands in contented fatherhood and well-certified respectability.

The success saga is the story of the city; the Western is the story of the country. But the Western depends on an infinite supply of wilderness to head off into, and what happens when that runs out? Cue the hard-boiled detective who has the Western hero’s qualities but is caught without escape in the big city. A city, moreover, that puts the lie to all the pieties of Franklin and Alger, a city where honesty is for suckers, politics is a mine of corruption, the cops are as crooked as they are violent, and neither truth, justice, nor the American Way will prevail. Correction: where untruth and injustice is the American Way.

Chandler’s hard-boiled hero ventures forth into that maze nonetheless, seeking to solve a case for a client but actually trying to fathom the mystery of iniquity in the American heart of darkness. In the process he must above all resist the blandishments of the success saga. Don’t be seduced by appearances but follow the girl and follow the money, for they will indeed lead you to the source of the crime. Our hero knows things cannot be put to rights as in the Western; neither can he escape, nor will he give in. He is, as I put it in that earlier post, the one remaining moral man in an immoral society, searching out the nature of true virtue. Niebuhr and Edwards in Vegas.

Most hard-boiled writers don’t straddle these tensions well, and none of them do so with the prose excellence of Chandler. Maybe that was his great appeal in that season of my exhaustion, and that is the lure that keeps drawing me back to the genre. It was sobering, then, in recently re-reading Farewell My Lovely to notice the misogyny and homophobia that leap off the page, not in every chapter but in too many. How was it that I didn’t see that before? How can I read it now that I do?

I guess that’s why that reading list just goes on and on and on.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Gail VDV says:

    So funny……I follow Reformed Journal on Facebook and I read it when it pops up. Upon reading this, I went to Amazon to download Niehbuhr’s book ‘The Children of Light, the Children of Darkness,’ ……all before realizing that I know the author of this essay!

    So, I went to the previous blog, which discusses books influencing us from ages 15-25 and want to add a few of my own:
    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn, The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass, So Big by Edna Ferber, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, His Eye is on the Sparrow by Ethel Waters. There are more.

  • William Harris says:

    It’s poetry month. Shouldn’t we also be nominating the poems that made a difference?

    These immediately come to mind — all reflections of growing up.

    Milton, “How soon hath time, that subtle thief of youth….”
    read that again in a fit of boredom and suddenly found a voice that spoke to me.

    Richard Blanco, “Mango No. 61”
    A prose poem from his first collection. A fine consideration about moving from one land to another yet keeping out memories.

    Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
    The closing lines, ‘what did I know? what did I know’ keep resonating for this son who had his issues with his father.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    As a career h.s. English teacher, given the charge to develop a world literature curriculum, I dove into lit of Africa/Asia/MiddleEast/LatinAmerica, largely passed over in my own school and college years, in favor of European lit. Our readings didn’t reject European classics, and I did enjoy revisiting works especially from French and Russian writers. Of the rest of the world’s lit, I found especial grace and beauty in the works of Latin American writers–Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for starters–and I have enjoyed the poetry of Chile’s Pablo Neruda, his Love Sonnets and his Elemental Odes in particular.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    I just have to say: John D. McDonald, Robert Parker.

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