In a 1950 essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Simple Art of Murder,” hardboiled fiction writer Raymond Chandler makes a compelling case for the legitimacy of the mystery novel in the world of literature. While the entire essay is interesting in its own right, Chandler’s most impressive passage comes in his nearly poetic description of the genre’s “hero” – the crime-solving detective Philip Marlowe. “Down these mean streets,” he begins, “a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” It always struck me that this detective, so different than the protagonists seen in the English mystery genre, represented something uniquely American; he was somehow an embodiment of our political ideal– a perfection of the American character.
Since reading that passage, I have held Chandler in a unique place in my study of politics. His understanding of this American character as one who is, at his best, a “complete,” “common,” and yet “unusual” man is one that requires a great deal of reflection. For me, taken in its fullest sense, Chandler’s description goes so far as to succinctly describe the virtues of an American statesman.
Democracies as a whole, never mind the American republic, have always tended towards some brand of equality. Even the ancient Athenians, as Plutarch charges, would exile for periods of ten years those “whom they thought too powerful, or, by their greatness, disproportionable to the equality thought requisite in popular government” (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles). While Americans would find such a process rather excessive, there’s no denying our strong preference for equality – not only in “rights,” but in dress, language, status, and many other aspects of culture. This is probably no small part of why Americans want leaders they’d feel comfortable “having a beer with.” It seems to me that Chandler, in his use of “common,” spoke of a man who understands and embraces this aspect of the American character– he finds an actual goodness in it.
At the same time, however, his detective – and our statesman – is not just a democratic man. He is also, in some way, an “unusual” man. Politically speaking, this is one of the most difficult aspects for democratic leaders to deal with. It is true that Chandler’s detective sometimes deals with “questionable characters,” but he is never one of them; similarly, he sometimes works with the police, but he is also not one of them. How similar this situation is to those who lead: the balance of party interests, the tension between “special interests” and the “American people.” It is the peculiar task of the detective to exist as both a part of and separate from those groups, and the same is true of the American statesman. This was a quality Edmund Morris saw in Theodore Roosevelt, whom he admired for going among the western frontiersmen and gaining their admiration while not entirely becoming one of them. “Somehow,” he wrote of Roosevelt, “he managed to preserve his gentlemanly status without offending democratic sensibilities” (Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt). Chandler’s use of the word “unusual,” while initially running contrary to the “common man,” seems to highlight this aspect of American society –our statesman, our most accomplished political figure, is someone who is able to reconcile the demands, virtues, and character of leadership with the sensibilities of regular Americans.
Finally, Chandler asks his detective to be a “complete man.” This remains for me, in many ways, the most difficult requirement of his to understand. He makes it a point to separate the three qualities – the “complete man” isn’t simply someone who is able to be both “common” and “unusual.” It’s something more than that: an ability to know the right application of each. It is, as Chandler goes on to describe, to be “a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” To be a “complete” man is to be those things which take you beyond even unusual men; it is to be honorable and virtuous in a way that is beyond political – in a way, perhaps, that is noble. The man who is both “common” and “unusual” will doubtless make a good politician, but only he who is also himself “complete” will rise to the level of statesman.
So as we reflect upon our study of politics, to the extent that we hope to call it a “serious” study, we cannot but hope to turn our contemplation into accomplishment. This “complete man” is a man of action –whether he is a writer, a detective, or a statesman –and he provides a certain American ideal about which, now and then, we are in need of reminding. Chandler’s reminder came in the form of a man named Philip Marlowe. He is the detective who walks down the mean streets, the dark alleys and the back rooms; the man who faces the world he lives in, who refuses to be afraid of it and refuses to let it break him. He is a man who pursues what Chandler calls a “hidden truth,” and who seeks justice as if it were something actually worth being sought. His is an example worth aspiring to.