From the Classical Detective to the Noir Hero:a Lacanian Approach to Subjectivity and Language in Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler

Catherine Humble

In The Big Sleep Philip Marlowe returns home to find Carmen Sternwood lying naked in his bed. ‘I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer,’ he states. It is not so much Carmen’s advances that Marlowe finds so repellent, as the intrusion of the woman’s presence in his private space:

I didn’t mind what she called me, I didn’t mind that. But this was the room I had lived in. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it, everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, stuff like that. Nothing. [1]

Marlowe’s subjectivity is bound to his ‘room’ – a room devoid of concrete description. All Marlowe has in the way of a home, everything that is his, and has any association for him, are simply ‘a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen’ – flat words that refuse to yield finite images. Marlowe’s entire ‘past’, his ‘family’, in short, his identity, is ‘not much’ and finally ‘Nothing’. The noir hero appears romantically attached to an image of himself as empty, resisting interpretation. And so, when an outsider arrives and threatens to disrupt this empty identity, Marlowe is overcome with displaced self-aggression: ‘I put down my empty glass and tore the bed to pieces savagely’ (BS: 97).

In what follows I will consider the subjectivity of the noir hero in relation to the classical detective. My first section will focus on Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, and my second section, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.[2] Each section will consider the subject’s relationship with language, with their historical context, and with their quest for meaning. I will be interested in the psychical origin of the subject, and shall therefore deploy a psychoanalytical approach, and one closely affiliated with the linguistic thought of Jacques Lacan and the neo-Lacanian thinker Slavoj Zizek. It is my contention that while the classical detective organises the gaps in meaning into a definite narrative, the noir hero seeks to dwell in the unknown; in psychoanalytical terms, his ego is ‘unhoused’ by his id.

Philosophical context   

The difference between the classical detective and the noir detective pertains to their different relationships to language.[3] To illuminate this and to clarify some terminology I intend to use, I shall take a short detour through Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.[4]

In the fort/da passage Freud describes a game his grandson plays with a cotton reel. The child repeatedly throws the reel away from him and says fort - ‘gone’, and then pulls it back to him and says da - ‘back again’ (SE XVIII: 34). For Freud, the cotton reel stands for the part of the human that is thrown away or absent in the word - fort. But the cotton reel also stands for the subject’s bond to language – da. The game captures the absence and presence of the thing in the word.

A few pages on, in an often overlooked paragraph, Freud adds that his grandson developed a variation of the game (SE XVIII: 36). In the second version, the child himself functions as the cotton reel: he throws himself behind a mirror and jumps back to observe his reflection. In the first game, when the child throws the cotton reel he throws that part of himself that is lost within language: he chooses linguistic meaning rather than the ‘being’ that language fails to capture. In the second game, when the child takes up the position of the cotton reel he situates himself in the field of ‘being.’ The child chooses ‘being’ instead of sense.

Each of the child’s games instantiate a different form of repetition. In the first game something escapes in language (Lacan calls this something ‘the real’) and so the game is repeated endlessly with the hope but without possibility of capturing that which escapes it.[5] This game establishes the subject’s ‘desire’.[6] With the subject’s entrance to language (Lacan’s symbolic order) the absence of ‘being’ is structured by the internal absences in the symbolic system, Lacan claims, and this gives rise to the subject’s ‘desire’ (S.I., 107). ‘Desire is the force that compels us to progress infinitely from one signifier to another in the hope of attaining the ultimate signifier that would fix the meaning of the preceding chain’. [7]  ‘Desire’ explains the child’s movement from fort to da. With the second game, however, the child’s repeated movement is driven not by ‘desire’ but by satisfaction: some satisfaction of ‘being’ as opposed to meaning is repeated in the game. (Lacan calls this satisfaction ‘jouissance’ – as self-destructive pleasure in ‘being’).[8]

The shift from classical detection to noir, I shall demonstrate, marks a movement from linguistic sense to ‘being’, or in a psychoanalytical register, from ‘desire’ to ‘jouissance’. As we shall see, this shift also describes a historical transition from ‘modernity’ to ‘postmodernity’.

At the risk of subsuming text to theory (recall Miss Marple’s caveat -‘Oh! But that’s theory! So very different to practice, isn’t it?’), let us return to the words on the page (MV, 247).[9]

The Classical Detective

That’s what he wants you to think! That you know the truth. It all fits in – but it’s wrong.[10] 

1. Miss Marple and language

Miss Marple, the archetypal classical detective, represents the symbolic order of language. Unlike Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple’s speech is rarely equivocal, nearly always to the point. Time and again her words express determinate meanings. ‘Truth,’ ‘knowledge’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ are some of Miss Marple’s favourite words (MV, 237-246). ‘Decided,’ ‘certainty’ and ‘logical,’ are the terms frequently deployed to characterise Miss Marple’s speech (MV, 241-246). The novel does not draw attention to Miss Marple’s language. Rather, her words act as a lens to reality.

However, the classical detective does not, as is commonly believed, assume a unity of word and thing.[11] This is the propensity of the police, who busy themselves with the futile task of taking the evidence at face value – conflating signs and signifieds. If the clock is stuck at twenty-two minutes past six, then according to Inspector Slack the murder took place at twenty-two minutes past six; and of Lawrence Redding, Slack says: ‘If he didn’t do it, what does he go and say he did it for?’ (MV, 45, 84) Inspector Slack takes signs literally. Failing to see a gap between the evidence and that which causes the evidence, Slack believes the murderer can be neatly deduced from the signs he leaves behind.  For Slack, the investigation is as ‘plain as a pikestaff… the whole thing’s plain sailing’ (MV, 46).

‘Slack is a kind of ferret. He’ll nose his way to the truth,’ says Colonel Melchett (MV, 100). But while the police ‘work hard’ trying to extract the ‘absolute truth’ from the clues, Miss Marple always holds open different possibilities (MV, 96, 56). Whereas the police can think of only ‘two people who had a motive for making away with Prothero,’ Miss Marple can think of ‘at least seven people’ (MV, 75, 90). Like Marple’s other famous protagonist Hercule Poirot who ‘would throw out suggestions but beyond that he would not go,’ Miss Marple doesn’t pontificate but retains an open mind. ‘You never really know, do you,’ she admits (MV, 125).[12]

Miss Marple therefore shares an affiliation with poststructuralists such as Barthes and Derrida, who criticise systems of knowledge that assume a stable depth-surface relation such that a hidden core of truth may be archaeologically uncovered.[13] She recognises the gap between signs and their signification, between words and their reference: ‘One should never go by what people say’ (MV, 241). Thus Miss Marple also forms a parody of those literary critics who approach the text via the hermeneutics of the police investigation - attempting to unravel its hidden meanings.

However, Miss Marple doesn’t simply ignore the trail of evidence. Nor does she subscribe to Saussure’s model of language, in which signs are simply arbitrary.[14] Rather, in accordance with Lacan, she understands how one incomplete sign leads to another. Of the clock, Miss Marple says: ‘I confess I wasn’t thinking about it from that point of view at all. What strikes me as so curious, and has done from the first, is the subject matter of the letter’ (MV, 89). Following the incomplete meaning of the clock to the incomplete meaning of the letter, Miss Marple represents the always open possibility of one signifier more: ‘Miss Marple’s keen wits have seen what we have failed to perceive, it was an odd thing, a very odd thing,’ notes the vicar (MV, 90).

2. A modern sentiment 

As we have seen, Miss Marple is able to identify the gap between the sign and the thing as well as the gaps between signs. However, standing for the symbolic order of language, Miss Marple also presents the need to conceal these gaps in order to acquire sense. In this way, she expresses a particular ‘modernist’ sentiment.

According to the neo-Lacanian writer Slavoj Zizek, the last sixty years or so have borne witness to a demise in what he terms the ‘Big Other’ - the symbolic order of social structures, institutions, and customs (such as the law, religion, politics) in western society.[15] For Zizek, as for Lacan, this marks a shift from ‘modernism’ to ‘postmodernism’ (FTKN, 21). According to Zizek, the symbolic order of language can never obtain presence, but only represent it; however, we must overlook this gap in order to communicate meaning (S.I., 132). Similarly, the ‘Big Other’, or the external structures of meaning, is a purely symbolic (or fictional) order. But this outside order is necessary, as it structures the subject’s lack and integrates him or her within a community (S.I., 345). As we shall see, Zizek argues that the loss of belief in outside systems of authority gives rise to a dangerous attachment to the emptiness of ‘being’ at the expense of meaning (FTKN, 237). In this context, I suggest that The Murder at the Vicarage, written in 1930, conforms to a ‘modernist’ as opposed to ‘postmodernist’ outlook.[16] 

‘There is always some perfectly good and reasonable explanation for Miss Marple’s omniscience,’ says the vicar (MV, 235). In accordance with Zizek’s ‘Big Other’ of external meaning, Miss Marple is situated in a position of outside authority. She is frequently depicted looking at events from a distance. She watches the comings and goings of other characters from her garden, and everyone in the community of St Mary Mead recognises her omniscience: ‘They realise, you see, that I am a noticing kind of person,’ Miss Marple states (MV, 242).

Miss Marple also possesses the symbolic ability to unite disparate elements into a formal coherence. She is the only character who appears to make complete sense of the events, but more significantly, the villagers respect her explanation. ‘Colonel Melchett, like myself, was impressed at the logical certainty of Miss Marple’s conclusions,’ the vicar states (MV, 245). As an authority for the community, Miss Marple describes it as ‘my duty to put my explanation of the mystery before you. If you don’t believe it, well, I have done my duty’ (MV, 239). The members of the community abide by Miss Marple’s rule: ‘some magnetism in her glance impelled me to hold out the last anonymous letter,’ the vicar states (MV, 242). And she is treated as an embodiment of truth. ‘Miss Marple has the uncanny knack of always being right’ (MV, 99).

As we have seen, the ‘Big Other’ is a kind of ‘fiction’ that must be believed in order for sense to prevail. Accordingly, Miss Marple’s account of the crime is incomplete but she compels belief in its completion: ‘There was something fascinating in Miss Marple’s resume of the case,’ says the vicar, ‘she spoke with such certainty that we both felt that in this way and in no other could the crime have been committed’ (MV, 243). Colonel Melchett says: ‘Your solution is a very plausible one, Miss Marple. But you will allow me to point out that there is not a shadow of proof.’ ‘I know,’ Miss Marple responds, ‘but you believe it to be true, don’t you?’ ‘Yes, I do,’ Colonel Melchett replies (MV 246).

3. Tracing desire

Miss Marple covers up the gaps in meaning to convince people of her explanation. But it is her ability to identify the gaps in meaning that leads to her explanation in the first place. For Miss Marple is not the ‘genteel puzzle solver’ of the ‘conservative British tradition’ that some critics suggest.[17] She treats the signs of evidence like Roland Barthes’ ‘writerly text’ in which ‘everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.’[18] Interpretation is not a matter of filling in the absences, but of identifying the absences. 

Whereas the police look for the most telling clue in the belief that ‘reality’ can be deduced from it, Miss Marple approaches the scene at the point where the sign cannot signify - at the point where the symbolic fails to make sense. In Lacan’s terms, she locates the instance where the ‘real’ makes itself felt in the ‘symbolic’. After Mr Hawes’ confession, the vicar believes ‘we now know the truth’ (MV, 237). And Miss Marple responds:

Of course! That’s what he wants you to think! That you know the truth…It all fits in – the letter, and the overdose, and his confession. It all fits in – but it’s wrong… (MV, 237).

Miss Marple is less interested in what appears to ‘fit in’ than what doesn’t fit in, what sticks out from the obvious signs and the explanations for them. ‘And – a very curious thing (though no one happened to think of it that way),’ says Miss Marple, ‘Mrs Prothero took no handbag with her’ (MV, 242). And then: ‘‘Only a big stone!...Only –’ Miss Marple became suddenly very emphatic. ‘It was the wrong sort of stone for my rock gardens! And that put me on the right track!’’ (MV, 242). Recalling Lacan’s ‘hard kernel of the real,’ Miss Marple is alert to the ‘curious things’ that stand out from given explanations - the ‘Peculiar Thing’ she refers to at various points in the novel. ‘At present we must take notice of Peculiar Things,’ she says (SI, 82) (MV, 145, 172).

The classical detective is concerned with the signs of evidence not in order to penetrate the ‘reality’ below, but to demonstrate that the surface does not cover a depth: the clue is always found in the most conspicuous place. ‘It is really a most unusual thing for a woman not to carry a handbag,’ Miss Marple states. ‘‘It is so often the most obvious that is true,’’ she adds, prefiguring the final revelation – that the very people who admitted they were the murderers are indeed the murderers (MV, 242). In this way we could argue that the classical detective distinguishes herself from the police by virtue of her passion for ignorance, not for eliminating it. For while Inspector Slack is a diligent hard worker, a man of ‘zeal and intelligence’, Miss Marple ‘lets things develop on their own.’ ‘I’m rather foolish, she says, ‘I don’t take things as I should’ (MV, 109, 56, 54).

For the classical detective, the absences of meaning in the trail of evidence point back to the initial absence that gave rise to the evidence – the subject’s lack. ‘You can never be sure of human nature,’ Miss Marple repeatedly remarks (MV, 54, 79). Miss Marple’s unique talent lies in recognising what stems from the subject’s lack – his desire.[19] More than any other character, Miss Marple understands the illusion Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding are under – that they can each fulfil the other’s lack. And she traces this desire for completion in the signs they leave behind. In fact, Miss Marple’s identification of the criminal’s desire actually arises from her own desire. For according to Lacan, ‘interpretation is desire’ (SI, 132). Desire does not, as the common use of the term might suggest, impose a bias, rather it supposes a gap. Like the child’s fort da game in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Miss Marple’s desire forces her to move from one incomplete sign to the next. But also, as the Lacanian thinker Joan Copjec suggests, ‘the detective’s desire makes him read the gaps in the evidence by positing an empty beyond’. [20] The absent handbag that defies meaning points back to the lack within the person carrying it. Similarly, the stone that is not Miss Marple’s stone, and is therefore in a sense an absent stone, and which also defies meaning, points back to the lack within the person carrying it.

In accordance with Lacan’s ‘real’, as the lack in the subject that cannot be signified (or proved) but only thought of as ‘a pure posit’, Miss Marple doesn’t ever prove who the murderers are (SI, 83). Her interpretative method invokes that of Hercule Poirot, who states ‘it is not my habit to explain until the end is reached,’ that is, until the murderers reveal themselves through their trail of desire.[21] As Colonel Melchett reminds her, Miss Maple has ‘‘not an atom of proof’ (MV, 256). She simply traces the murderers’ desire. It is the murderers who finally give themselves up.

The Noir subject

Down these streets a man must go who is not himself…The detective must be such a man.[22] 

1. The voice of Philip Marlowe

‘Why don’t you for Christ’s sake say something?’ Vivian Sternwood yells at Philip Marlowe (BS, 135). In contrast to the classical detective, the noir hero dwells in the lack of meaning. While Miss Marple’s speech always makes perfect sense, Philip Marlowe’s eludes concrete meaning. Whereas Miss Marple embraces the symbolic order of language, Philip Marlowe rejects it.[23] His speech is laconic, his words pithy, and very often, as Vivian Sternwood reveals, he refuses to speak at all. Marlowe seems more comfortable in a world without discourse: ‘The air hung around me as heavy as silence’ (BS, 112). And when he does speak, his words often fail to communicate definite meaning. Asked to investigate the Sternwood’s blackmailing case, Marlowe replies: ‘I think I can, but I can’t tell you why or how’ (BS, 54).

At times Marlowe’s voice appears disembodied: ‘‘Well you fooled him Harry,’ I said out loud, in a voice that sounded queer to me’ (BS, 109). According to Slavoj Zizek, the voice of the noir subject is cut off from his body, and this is certainly the effect here.[24] However, Marlowe’s speech is severed from himself in a way that remains unexplained by the commonplace observation that the noir hero’s voice (or voice-over in film) provides commentary to the action. Nor is it a matter of the voice diverging from thetruth’ of the image, as is the other standard argument.[25] Rather, the voice fails to ground the noir subject in sense, to integrate his lack within the symbolic system of meaning. When Marlowe’s voice seems to emanate from himself, it does so not in order to impart meaning. Alone with Mrs Mars, Marlowe remarks: ‘I went on, just to keep sound alive in the room, just to keep from listening’ (BS, 119). In this way, his speech recalls Roland Barthes’ ‘grain of the voice,’ which ‘has no content and expresses nothing of the speaker’ but is the ‘friction’ one hears when one perceives ‘the materiality of language, its resistance to meaning’. [26]

The indeterminacy of Marlowe’s speech is mirrored in the nonsensical voices that surround him. ‘Marlowe yelled with agony, the yell went off into a wailing groan’ (BS, 123). And later he ‘began to laugh like a loon’ (BS, 154). Similarly Carmen’s ‘giggles got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting’ (BS, 41). Her ‘teeth parted and a faint hissing sound came out of her mouth. She didn’t answer me’ (BS, 41). And when Vivian laughs:

‘It was almost a racking laugh. It shook her as the wind shakes the tree…I thought there was puzzlement in it, not exactly surprise, but as if a new idea had been added to something already known and didn’t fit (BS, 120) [my italics].

In The Big Sleep the incommunicable voices express the incommunicability of being. In line with Derrida’s account of language as ‘supplement,’ as ‘the substitution for the original thing,’ Vivian’s voice is the something ‘new’ ‘added’ to the ‘something already known’ but undefined, in other words her ‘being’.[27] Marlowe also connects the nonsensical laugh with the undefined ‘something’ of being: ‘The chuckle was something out my own memories,’ he says (BS, 87) [my italics].

In Chandler’s noir the indeterminate voice that points to the indeterminate ‘being’ often takes the form of laughter. In this way, ‘being’ is connected with enjoyment. In contrast to the classical detective, the noir hero chooses ‘being’ over sense, ‘jouissance’ over ‘desire’.

2. From the modern to the postmodern – or from desire to jouissance

This shift from the classical detective to noir, or from determinate meaning to enjoyment in indeterminate ‘being,’ is inscribed in a historical transition. According to Zizek, the movement from the early twentieth century ‘modern’ society to the mid/late twentieth century ‘postmodern’ society marks a shift from ‘desire’ to ‘jouissance’ (FTKN, 133-168). Zizek argues that the demise in authority of the ‘Big Other’ - the symbolic order of collective authority that structures the lack in being - gives rise to fixation with the lack. And this results in increased attachment to private enjoyment, witnessed now in our preoccupation with the commodity, or self-development, in place of belief in any outside structures of meaning. For Zizek the postmodern ‘fetishisation of private jouissance’ will have harmful consequences for society. It will result in a rise in racism, in ‘ever smaller factions of people proclaiming their duty bound devotion to their own special brand of enjoyment,’ unless we ‘reintroduce some notion of community, of a total system to which we can partially belong’.[28] I suggest that genre of noir was monitory: it sought to warn us of the dangers of private ‘jouissance’.

Joan Copjec claims that the post-war period marked a ‘perceptible ascendancy of ‘jouissance’ over ‘desire’:

To this shift a whole range of social policies encouraging suburban expansion and ethnic and racial segregation (mandated most notably, but not exclusively by the Federal Housing Administration) clearly bear witness.[29]

The gradual historical shift from ‘desire’ to ‘jouissance’ was also reflected in the cultural climate of thought - in particular the vogue for existentialism which reached its peak after the second world war. When the hard-boiled novels were translated into French in the Série noire in 1945 the existentialists recognised in this new type of detective novel something of their own philosophy – their commitment to the priority of being, or, in existentialist parlance the in-itself – over sense.[30] Existentialism is, in this regard, a philosophy of ‘jouissance’, unthinkable before the historical overturning of ‘desire’ by ‘jouissance’.[31] Philip Marlowe, the ‘sardonic adolescent’ as Joyce Carol Oates calls him, displays an existentialist preoccupation with the void of being: ‘I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets’ (BS, 97).[32]  

We have already seen how enjoyment is connected with the void of ‘being’ in The Big Sleep through the recurrence of the laugh. This is made particularly explicit when Marlowe says: ‘The groan became a wet gurgle, choked with blood. I let the gurgle die sickeningly, on a choked gasp. It was nice work. I liked it’. Marlowe clearly gains pleasure from the undefined voice that points to his undefined being.  Again, this is emphasised in the following passage:

My mind drifted through waves of false memory, in which I seemed to do the same thing, over and over again…meet the same people, say the same words to them, over and over again, and yet, each time it seemed real, like something actually happening, and for the first time…It was like that, over and over again (BS, 126) [my italics].

Here, satisfaction in the indeterminacy of speech and ‘being’ creates paralysis, rather than progression. Whereas the classical detective orders the gaps in meaning through desire and in doing so acquires sense, the noir hero gains pleasure from dwelling in the void. Invoking the second game of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which the child repeatedly chooses ‘being’ over sense, Marlowe is caught in a cyclical fixation with empty meaning. In contrast to the ‘fort/da’ game, where the child repeatedly chooses different words with specifically different meanings, Marlowe chooses the same, non-specific words (‘the same words, over and over again’). Marlowe is afflicted with Freud’s death drive - the wish to return to a preconscious state played out in the subject’s repetition of self-annihilating actions (SE, XVIII: 38). Marlowe’s words have no content and the ‘something’ that is ‘happening’ to him remains opaque. In short, he circles around nothingness.

Marlowe’s fixation with empty meaning, which is his fixation with ‘being,’ is destructive because it entails unhealthy isolation instead of communication and community. Unlike Miss Marple, who never speaks alone, but always in dialogue with others, Marlowe clings not to the community with which speech puts him in touch, but to the enjoyment that separates him from that community: ‘On the way back to the city, I listened to my thoughts’.[33]

However, this isolation is distinct from privacy. In fact, it actually results in a loss of privacy. What is involved in the ‘jouissance’, Lacan tells us, is a ‘making oneself heard and seen’ (SI, 87). That is to say, the intimate core of ‘being’ is no longer sheltered by language (by the gaps that are structured in the symbolic system), but becomes exposed. However, ‘being’ does not lose its essential nature as resistance to determinate meaning; rather the void itself is exposed, contentless and nonsensical.[35] This is presented on a visual level in the barren spaces that constitute the characteristic architecture of noir, in Marlowe’s vacant room, his bare office, the abundant images of emptiness in the opening page: ‘The sun was not shining’, Marlowe says, ‘the hard chairs backed into the vacant spaces of the wall. They didn’t look as if anyone ever sat on them,’ and ‘there was a big empty fireplace’[my italics]. In The Big Heat, Debbie Marsh gives a particularly apt appraisal of the noir interior. Looking around the bare hotel room, she quips ‘Oh, early nothing!’ As the private ‘eye’, Philip Marlowe cannot escape seeing that which should remain concealed: the private emptiness of his being. And so, when Carmen Sternwood appears inside this vacant space she threatens to usurp Marlowe’s very being – and this precipitates his self-destructive reaction. 

3. Taking the mystery seriously…

Marlowe’s personal space is empty of ‘desire’. Unlike the vicar’s study in The Murder at the Vicarage that is replete with signs open to interpretation, Marlowe’s dwelling refuses any kind of reading.  The emptiness of the noir rooms indicate less that there is nothing in them, than that nothing more can be got out of them.

‘I do it in my way,’ Marlowe says of his investigations, ‘I may break a few rules’ (BS, 130). Just as the vacant spaces and indeterminate voices resist interpretation, so Marlowe’s investigations are not organised by ‘desire’ but by drive or ‘jouissance’. Unlike Miss Marple, Marlowe does not structure the absences of meaning, rather he becomes implicated in them. The blackouts, the intimate relations with vacuous femme fatales, the bodily injuries, the labyrinthine streets, all attest to Marlowe’s embroilment in the dearth of meaning – in the ‘being’ that is over exposed in the noir universe.

‘I don’t seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously as I should,’ Raymond Chandler admits. Marlowe’s investigations are less an attempt to trace the external events to arrive at some kind of sense, than a pursuit of ‘a hidden truth’ – a quest for the truth of ‘being’.[36] And this is Marlowe’s romantic folly. For ‘being’ is not something that can be disclosed but only posited. Being can only be revealed as the concealed; or as in Miss Marple, revealed in the gaps in meaning.

If the mysteries appear like ‘emotionally charged, confusing dreams,’ as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, then it is because they represent Marlowe’s fantasies - of penetrating the empty unknown being.[37] So like the Los Angeles fog that ‘curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form on the edge of consciousness,’ Marlowe comes perilously close to the edge of consciousness (BS, 92). The noir subject is always in danger of falling into the preconscious, of becoming sheer nothingness – of drifting into The Big Sleep.


While the classical detective identifies the absences of meaning in language, the noir subject seeks to inhabit them. The classical detective is integrated into the symbolic system of language, acquiring subjectivity and ‘desire.’ But the noir hero distrusts symbolic language; he gains self-destructive pleasure from fixation with the void of ‘being’. This divergence between the two pertains to their different socio-historical outlooks. Agatha Christie’s novel is embedded in a ‘modernist’ mentality, in which social structures of meaning are upheld. In contrast, Raymond Chandler’s novel subscribes to a ‘postmodernist’ sensibility, in which external systems of meaning are less secure, and thus subjects adhere instead to personal enjoyment. Finally, this shift from the defined subject to undefined ‘being’, from sense to indeterminacy of meaning, has implications for the detective’s quest. With the classical detective story, subjectivity is a matter of structuring the ‘lack’ of meaning, and so with the investigation ‘everything must fit in, otherwise we are on the wrong track’.[38] Conversely, in noir the truth of ‘being’ is the unknown and so decoding the mystery is irrelevant -‘the solution to the mystery is only the olive in the martini’.[39]  



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Symons, Julian, Bloody Murder: From Detective Story to the Crime Novel (New York: Mysterious Press, 1993)

Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London: Verso, 1991) 

Zizek, Slavoj, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (MIT: London, 2002)

Zizek, Slavoj, On Belief (London: Routledge, 2001) Zizek, Slavoj, ‘The Thing That Thinks – The Kantian Background of the Noir Hero’, in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993)  

Zizek, Slavoj, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso, 2002)




[1] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, in The Raymond Chandler Omnibus (London: Book Club Associates, 1975), p. 97. Hereafter BS.

[2] Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 239. Hereafter MV.

[3] My discussion focuses on the distinction between the classical detective fiction of Agatha Christie and the noir novels of Raymond Chandler. However, other works of the two genres may be of further interest. The classic detective story can be said to have originated as far back as 1841 with Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. The early school included the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (1875-1907). However, the phrase ‘classical detective fiction’ usually refers to British novels of the 1920s and 1930s by the following writers: Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976), Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957), R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943), Michael Innes (1906–1993), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 - 1957), Josephine Tey (1896 - 1952), and more. Noir fiction was popularized by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and then by Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). It was first published in and closely associated with pulp magazines, most famously Black Mask. Noirs were later published by houses specializing in paperback originals, known as ‘pulps’. Other writers include: Mickey Spillane (March 9, 1918 – July 17, 2006), James M. Cain (1892-1977), Walter Mosley (1952-), James Ellroy (1948-).

[4] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vol., ed. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1995), p. XVIII 7-64. Hereafter SE.

[5] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, book 1, Freud’s Paper’s on Technique, 1953-1954, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1988), p. 82.  Hereafter S.I.

[6] Following Saussure, Lacan identifies two forms of absence in the word, the absence of the thing it represents, but also the absence of another word - in the differential system of language one word attains its meaning via it’s difference or absence and presence of another word.

[7] Slavoj Zizek, ‘The Thing That Thinks – The Kantian Background of the noir hero,’ in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 222.  

[8] Jacques Lacan, ‘Some Reflections on the Ego’, p. 16. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 34, 1953, p.12.  Hereafter, SRE.

[9] When I refer to the terms ‘symbolic order’, ‘being’, ‘jouissance’, ‘desire’, I am using them in the specifically Lacanian sense, and will thus hyphenate the words to avoid any confusion.

[10] Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 239.  Hereafter MV.

[11] Glenn Most, The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory (London: Harcourt, 1983), p. 128. Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From Detective Story to the Crime Novel (New York: Mysterious Press, 1993), p. 59.

[12] Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 123. Hereafter MRA.

[13] See Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), pp. 196-231; Roland Barthes, Image–Music-Text (London: Fontana Press, 1993).

[14] Ferdinand de Saussure, Writings in General Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[15] Slavoj Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London: Verso, 1991), p 12. Hereafter FTKN.

[16] I use the terms ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ with the specific sense attributed to them by Zizek, as presented in the main text.  Historically, these terms are difficult to pin down precisely, but ‘modernism’ refers loosely to the early twentieth century and postmodernism to the late twentieth century, early twenty-first century.

[17] Joyce Carol Oates, ‘The Simple Act of Murder: The Novels of Raymond Chandler’, The New York Review of Books. Online publication.

[18] Roland Barthes, Image–Music-Text (London: Fontana Press, 1993), p. 56.

[19] Time and again Miss Marple guesses, correctly, that something indefinable motivates the characters: Lettice ‘isn’t half as vague as she pretends to be, she has a plan…’(p.56); she knows that Griselda’s has a mysterious connection with Lawrence Redding (p. 241); and she guesses that Mrs Protheroe will admit to the murder (p. 32).

[20] Joan Copjec, ‘The Phenomenal and Non Phenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir,’ in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 187.

[21] Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 76.

[22] Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (London: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 54.

[23] For the relationship between women and language in Lacan see: John Holland, What Lacan Said About Women: A Psychoanalytical Study (New York, Other Press, 2006); Paul Verhaeghe, Does the Women Exist?: From Freud’s Hysteric to Lacan’s Feminine (London: Other Press, 1999).

[24] Slavoj Zizek, ‘The Thing That Thinks – The Kantian Background of the noir hero,’ in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 216.

[25] Woody Haut, Neon Noir (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999), p. 137; Brian Docherty, American Crime Fiction (London, Macmillan, 1997), p. 145.

[26] Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice (London: Hill & Wang, 1984), p. 76.

[27] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 98-102. 

[28] Joan Copjec, ‘The Phenomenal and Non Phenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir,’ in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 178.

[29] Joan Copjec, ‘The Phenomenal and Non Phenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir,’ in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 185. See also: Haut Woody, Hardboiled Fiction and The Cold War (London, Serpent’s Tail, 1995); Fredric Jameson, Post-modernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1997); Peter Messent, ed. Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel (London: Pluto, 1997).

[30] ‘Série noire’ refers to a French publishing imprint founded in 1945 by Marcel Duhamel. It released a collection of crime fiction of hardboiled detective thrillers published by Gallimard.

[31] Alain Silver, James Ursini, Film Noir, (New York: Taschen, 2004); Copjec, p. 187.

[32] Joyce Carol Oates, ‘The Simple Act of Murder: The Novels of Raymond Chandler’, The New York Review of Books (, p. 5.

[33] Lady in the Lake in The Raymond Chandler Omnibus (London: Book Club Associates, 1975), p. 609.

[35] Fredric Jameson, ‘The Synoptic Chandler’ in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New York: Verso, 1993), pp. 33-57.

[36] Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (London: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 45.

[37] Joyce Carol Oates, ‘The Simple Act of Murder: The Novels of Raymond Chandler’, The New York Review of Books (, p. 11.

[38] Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 95.

[39] Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (London: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 89.

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