I’ve spent the last couple of days reading a book called Me, Detective by Leslie T. White and it has helped answer a question that’s intrigued me for a little while, namely Why is Marlowe a former DA’s investigator and not an ex cop? I say intrigued because I haven’t really lost sleep over this question but the solution reveals the depth of the connection between Chandler and LA and how important the city was to his novels.
In The Big Sleep Marlowe tells General Sternwood that he “…worked for Mr. Wilde, The District Attorney, as an investigator once.” To English ears, this doesn’t mean much – a DA’s investigator is not something we are familiar with – but, to an audience reading in 1939 it marks Marlowe as a certain kind of man. DA’s across America had “investigators” in the twenties and thirties but by in large they were men borrowed from the police department and who owed there loyalty there too. In 1929 LA’s new DA Burton Fitts was sick of the corruption of LAPD. Fitts was appointed when his predecessor was indited for corruption and he needed men who he could trust and so established The Bureau of Investigation, made up of reliable me with no affiliation to the LAPD. The department was tasked to investigate crimes and they were given all the authority of a police force but came without the taint of corruption.
By making Marlowe one of these men, Chandler established him as an uncorrupted and good invesigator, one of the city’s White Knights fighting against endemic corruption. As a private eye he is still an investigator who believes in acting honestly and, had he started out as a policeman, this honesty may have been doubted by the original audience.
Of course Marlowe leaves the DA’s team for insubordination and this is an important factor too. White points out that the department he worked in was not free of political influence and he illustrates his point with the Doheney Case. Doheney was the son of a rich oil man. He and his secretary were found shot to death in a Beverly Hills mansion and witnesses in the house told investigators that the secretary shot Doheny and then himself. White found that the physical evidence did not support this explanation but, when he brought this to the attention of his superiors, he was ordered not to pursue the investigation. Doheny’s father was considered politically sensitive and accusing his son of a murder was the sort of thing that might ruin a politician’s career. The case will be familiar to readers of The High Window where it makes an appearance as the Casidy Case. White was the sort of investigator who, despite his misgivings, would not pursue the Doheny murder when ordered not to. Marlowe, however, was not. To him honesty is paramount and it is no wonder that he failed to last in a department that was so affected by politics.
Chandler, then, was familiar with much of what White wrote about. Both men knew Los Angeles very well and Chandler wanted Marlowe to be a product of that city. He had to be a DA’s investigator to be seen as an honest investigator: he had to be an insubordinate one to shirk off any outside influences. Marlowe is an man of LA indeed, albeit one as close to honesty as he could come.