After a big sleep (or none at all) comes breakfast for detective Philip Marlowe
Lately, I’ve been driving. Aimless. Alone. Lost in thought, this morning, south through the Arroyo Seco and down Hill Street, through J.J. Gittes’ Chinatown, I found myself in a diner near the old Santa Fe Railroad building—now hip lofts. Raymond Chandler wouldn’t have been surprised. This is Marlowe’s world—a stark, sour Los Angeles with a greedy, developmental eye cast over all, gun-sprayed with sex, deception, and… breakfast. Somehow, whether he was cutting through a cloud of acrid gunpowder smoke, or dodging a gauntlet of swinging saps, Chandler's iconic detective Philip Marlowe always made time for breakfast, no matter the hour.
Breakfast was simultaneously Marlowe’s firing pin and safety. On surface level it was surely a simple carryover from the detail-oriented and meal-concerned Chandler, who regularly dined and crafted Marlowe amidst the red leather booths of Musso and Frank (which is still slinging the best martinis in town, 97 years after it opened on Hollywood Boulevard). But further down beneath the surface, say, where Crystal Kingsley rose from Little Fawn Lake, the meal unfolded more angles than a Marlowe mystery.
The shamus lives for exhaustion. It’s practical, of course, that Marlowe often starts his day reading two newspapers over eggs and coffee. He’s about to be tossed on his ass from every angle. A big tough boy needs his energy; he’s got a lot of falling down to do. For me, a seldom physical writer, this is not the case. The times I employ a rejuvenating breakfast are few and far between, often in fix of a hangover. Rarely does my day necessitate a morning charge.
But for Marlowe, the utility of breakfast isn’t relegated to the a.m. It’s all-time. It’s a floating engagement, a pistol in the holster to be pulled whenever its fortifying features become necessary. Marlowe’s seen a carousel of icepicks kissing necks, driven to Bay City as many times as he’s been lied to today, and took the barrel of his own .38 Super to his temple. And now? Now he’s going to sit in his car for lord knows how long, waiting for the next thing to happen. Some breakfast would be nice right about now. And breakfast is whenever—time doesn’t exist when the case is hot. He’s on until he finishes.
That unanchored nature of the meal yields some less tangible benefits. The pause for breakfast, whenever he can get it, is now a step out of time. The case temporarily on hold, his thoughts unfolding on some untethered plane, his mind begins to wander. There’s plot to turn over, deductions to dust, all coated in worry. Marlowe knows when his plate is finished he’s back in the thresher, maybe about to expire. How’s that for anxiety?
Better to steel yourself a bit, maybe a fat slug of Four Roses in the coffee. Sometimes breakfast comes in harder forms.
What about the absence of motion, though? When he isn’t ripping napkins and fingering a trigger? The abstract breakfast is also one of solitude. Just like the driving. Just like the stakeouts. Endless, clouded stretches of your own thoughts. And what does a person think of, idly draining coffee cups after they have finished their breakfast, in a restaurant alone? Does it make much difference—detective, civilian, writer? Of course they turn to longing, to regret. The past turns over and over, ceaselessly curling along the beach, examining itself in harsh diner fluorescence. Nostalgia, in all its awful forms.
They practically invented the flashback for it.
Maybe the breakfast, at any hour of any dreadful day, is the punctuation of these sharp solitudes. In the filling station there’s some community in committing the same act.
Alone, together, with their breakfasts.
Of course, it’s all more than a bit idealized—the detective life, these meaninglessly important breakfasts, something that writers eye for the similarities, the solitude. I finish my soft boiled eggs, empty my cup of coffee larger than the mouth of the Second Street tunnel, and walk out of the Nickel Diner into a sweat-glistening downtown Los Angeles. I’m a stone’s throw from a bootlegging bar that never really bootlegged, which smacks of such a Marlowe-esque Hollywood, that it feels better than the real thing. If I could take the silver-screen edition I’d be more Gould than Bogart, trying to shrug off the dark and keep my head down, perpetually feeding my cat. Something like that. Well, you know, writers and their romance.
Put some coffee on. It’s dark and lonely business and nobody’s gotta do it. We just like to.