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Finding Marlow

3 November 2014

From The Los Angeles Times:

It was hot and I was late for lunch. I was feeling mean, like I’d been left out in the sun too long.

We were meeting at a joint on La Brea, the kind of place where the booths have curtains you can pull shut if you need a little privacy. I slid across cool leather and got my first good look at Louise Ransil, a wisp of a redhead with high cheekbones and appraising eyes.

She sat with her hands folded on the worn table, a stack of old paperbacks next to her.

Ransil had a script she’d been peddling to the studios. I’d started reading it — a detective caper set in 1930s Los Angeles — and wanted to find out about the claim on the title page.

“BASED ON A TRUE STORY: From case files of P.I. Samuel B. Marlowe.”

. . . .

Marlowe, she said, was the city’s first licensed black private detective. He shadowed lives, took care of secrets, knew his way around Tinseltown. Ransil dropped the names of some Hollywood heavies — Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes.

But it got better. Marlowe knew hard-boiled writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she said.

The private eye had written them after reading their early stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask to say their fictional gumshoes were doing it all wrong. They began writing regularly, or so her story went. The authors relied on Marlowe for writing advice, and in the case of Chandler, some real-life detective work.

So his name was Samuel Marlowe … and their most famous characters were Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

That was no accident, she was sure of it.

. . . .

Chandler and Hammett created two characters that shaped the archetype of the noir detective as a world-weary white man, and she was saying they might have been named after a black private eye.

I started checking out Ransil’s story, looking up the paid obituaries in The Times and the Los Angeles Sentinel from when Marlowe died in 1991.

Marlowe was born Aug. 3, 1890, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. According to The Times obituary, he served in Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a World War I fighting brigade that guarded the Suez Canal. After the war, Marlowe immigrated to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles, where he soon became a private detective.

. . . .

I started re-reading Chandler’s and Hammett’s novels, gulping down their stories of crooks and femmes fatales, dizzy with all that hard language coursing through my head.

Hammett’s debut novel, “Red Harvest,” was published in 1929 — the same year Marlowe wrote the author to complain about his writing, Ransil said.

The following year, Hammett released “The Maltese Falcon,” with its iconic, white private detective, Sam Spade.

Marlowe claimed that Spade’s first name was an homage to him, and that the character’s surname was Hammett’s “winking inside joke,” because “spade” was a derogatory term for a black person, Marlowe Jr. told Ransil.

. . . .

Ransil said that Marlowe’s cache of letters from Hammett included a carbon copy of a draft of “Nightshade” with an index card clipped to it suggesting the story was inspired by the private eye:

“I came across this and thought you might like to have it. You’ll see I changed a few of the details, but I think it still works.”

. . . .

The detective also started doing a little work for Chandler after the author wrote the PI asking if he could retrieve some police files, Ransil said. Marlowe’s billing files, she said, show that he was also Chandler’s guide on research expeditions to the “tough parts of town.”

Marlowe gave Chandler a bit of advice on how to think like a PI: “Believe no one, even the person hiring you — especially the person hiring you,” according to Ransil’s notes.

In 1939, Chandler released “The Big Sleep,” his first Philip Marlowe novel. It turned the writer into a literary star.

Chandler followed up “The Big Sleep” a year later with “Farewell, My Lovely,” considered by some to be his greatest work. Ransil believes that the South L.A. vignette that opens the book depicts a side of the city that Chandler would have been unfamiliar with unless he had a guide like Marlowe.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times and thanks to Andrew for the tip.

Books in General, Characters

7 Comments to “Finding Marlow”

  1. This is just an amazing story. The L.A. Times did a big long illustrated feature story, so do yourselves a favor and read the whole thing.

  2. I’m torn over this. Love the way they played it; hated the way the reporter wrote it in pseudo-pulp fiction style, especially since, in the end, there’s no proof.

    There were a few things in the screenwriter’s story that also bugged me. She can’t offer a shred of proof that the detective knew Chandler or Hammett, only her notes that she took at the time of her research. She couldn’t be bothered to copy one letter that she saw. The detective supposedly wrote Hammett saying he didn’t know how to write about a detective, when Hammett had been a Pinkerton’s for many years.

    I want to believe it’s true, because it would be a cool story. But just because a story is cool doesn’t make it true.

    • Agree. I don’t believe it, either. No offense to anyone, but I doubt that Universal Studios, Howard Hughes, and other prominent entertainment industry figures would have known of Samuel Marlowe or been willing to hire a black man at that time to handle sensitive private matters. The movie studios, especially, had their own security forces and resources for keeping scandals quiet.

    • Good point. Especially about Hammett being at Pinkerton’s.

  3. A fascinating legacy. This article feeds both my obsessions today: genealogy research and the noir project I’m writing for NaNoWriMo this year.

  4. “But it got better. Marlowe knew hard-boiled writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she said.

    The private eye had written them after reading their early stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask to say their fictional gumshoes were doing it all wrong.”

    That doesn’t make much sense for Hammett. He worked for years as a Pinkerton detective. And as for Sam Spade, there’s this section on Hammett’s Wikipedia page:

    “Hammett was baptized a Catholic[5] and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. “Sam”, as he was known before he began writing, left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for the Pinkertons from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I.”

    So perhaps Hammett named his character Sam as an inside joke, since Sam used to be his nickname. Authors have been known to sneak themselves into their own stories. Stephen King did it openly, without even trying to hide it, in the later Dark Tower novels.

  5. I have a hunch before this is over there’ll be a book published laying out the case for the story’s veracity. I’ll save a place on the shelf for it, right next to the Hitler diaries.

    Entertaining and interesting story, but as pointed out above, no proof.

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