PI’s Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are outsiders, loners, whose chivalry is not esteemed let alone recognised, and it is sure as hell doesn’t pay well. Men who eke out their existence on the periphery, up against the rank underbelly of that rapacious beast, the modern metropolis. For the purveyors of the American Dream they are losers. Yet they are mythic.
In a recently published essay on the myth of the cowboy, the late British historian and Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm, draws a parallel between “Gary Cooper at high noon” and Sam Spade. A worthy comparison.
“Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can’t, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man’s right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don’t think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him… In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man.”
– Source: An extract from Eric Hobsbawm’s final book Fractured Times published by The Guardian as ‘The Myth of the Cowboy‘
2 thoughts on “The PI as Anarchist”
“The new cowboy tradition made its way into the wider world by two routes: the western movie and the much underrated western novel or sub-novel, which was to many foreigners what the private eye thriller was to become in our own times.”
Indeed, quite an exceptional correlation here in this excellent excerpt by Hobsbaum, and one I must concur with. Your use of the word “mythic” here is key and it seems to rescue the thematic fate of some of these characters.
Thanks Sam. Mythic has more easily been applied to the Western, but the novels of Hammett and Chandler definitely stand-up as mythic too.