Even in his heyday, Philip Marlowe was never much of a winner. He might succeed in finding out who killed whom (although even there, as in the case of the slain butler in The Big Sleep, the final accounting could remain a little murky), and he generally emerged from each adventure with his tough skin and his sensitive soul more or less intact. Yet, while he always reached the finish line, he invariably did so with the rueful sense that somehow he didn’t quite get there first.
Today, Marlowe came up short again. He had advanced triumphantly through five rounds of an online competition that pitted him against 63 other fictional sleuths, all vying—virtually, that is—for the title of “World’s Favorite Detective.” But in the final matchup, which reached its climactic phase this weekend, Marlowe lost out to Harry Bosch, the protagonist of a blockbuster series penned by Michael Connelly.
For an old guy like Marlowe, it was an honor just to be nominated. So he owes a debt—as do fans of fictional detection everywhere, who witnessed a fine show—to the woman who created and conducted this mammoth contest, mystery blogger Jen Forbus. Inspired by the sublime “bracketology” of March Madness, the annual NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, Forbus decided to put on a multi-week single-elimination tourney of her own. Earlier this year, she solicited ideas from her readers on which characters might deserve most-favored-gumshoe status, and readers obliged by submitting more than 1,000 nominations. Giving priority to candidates who received multiple reader nods and weeding out those who didn’t conform to her criteria (amateur sleuths such as Miss Marple, for instance, need not apply), Forbus arrived at an official slate of contestants. On March 3, she posted a list of 64 literary detective heroes, along with a spreadsheet that showed the brackets into which she had seeded them: She set Adam Dalgliesh against John Rebus, for example, just as the NCAA might set UCLA against Gonzaga. Many of the nominated sleuths were unknown to me. (Aloysius Pendergast? Moe Prager?) But after the first round or two, the roster of surviving contestants took on the look of the familiar. Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade were both in contention, as were Kinsey Millhone, Easy Rawlins, and Kurt Wallander.
The last face-off involved eminently familiar names, but they were familiar in contrasting ways. Marlowe was a man of his time, as was his creator, Raymond Chandler. Bosch and Connelly are men of this time. People know Marlowe from the much-copied image of him that descends from books that are now collector’s heirlooms, and from movies that are shown mainly at festivals and on third-tier cable channels. They know Bosch from the thick tomes by Connelly that still appear routinely on the The New York Times best-seller list. They also know that Bosch inhabits what is, to their 21st-century eyes, a recognizable and compelling world. Fittingly, Marlowe and Bosch both claim Los Angeles and its environs as their stomping ground. Focusing on roughly the same terrain, they epitomize the way that angry, observant Angelenos in their respective eras have responded to the bleak reality—the corruption, the deceit, the violence—that lies beneath the sunny Southern California ideal.
More than a gap in years separates Marlowe from Bosch, however. Consider the names of both men, names that make these characters doubly familiar. Chandler, aiming to liken his lonely private eye to a premodern knight errant, gave him a surname borrowed from the Elizabethan playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe. The plays of Christopher Marlowe featured plenty of violence and skullduggery, and so did his life. Yet his name evokes the golden dawn of English poetry. By summoning the shade of this poet, Chandler aligns his detective with a lost (but perhaps retrievable) sense of order and gallantry. Connelly, meanwhile, named his detective after Hieronymus Bosch, a painter known for creating indelible images of hellish depravity and moral chaos. Bosch the painter brought an almost modern style and sensibility to his rendering of the medieval world and worldview, and the results on canvas have a lurid precision that would make a latter-day hardboiled writer proud. Half a millennium later, LAPD cop Harry Bosch encounters a city whose brutal underside is no less vividly clear—and all too close to the city’s glittering surface. Relative to Marlowe’s world, which serves (however ironically) as the setting for a kind of romantic quest, Bosch’s world is more present. It’s “present” not only in the sense of “happening now,” but also in the sense of having a real presence, of seeming authentic.
In a popularity contest, then, Bosch should triumph over Marlowe. To be sure, Bosch almost certainly won this competition because his supporters tipped the digital scale through repeat voting: Stuffing a virtual ballot box, as any fool knows, is even easier than stuffing the old-fashioned kind. (The final tally had Bosch winning by the improbable score of 79 percent to 21 percent.) But that factor doesn’t alter the dynamic that is at work here. Bosch fans, whether they were more numerous or simply more (let’s say) eager than Marlowe fans, represent the dominant view today of what a fictional detective should be.
The heroes of detective fiction offer their fans not just a case file, but also a sensibility, a manner of confronting a world marked by death and mystery. It is this sensibility that, more than anything else, readers favor when they deem a character to be their “favorite.” Characters like Marlowe and Bosch might strike a blow for justice, but what wins our hearts is the way that they strike a pose. “Watching the detectives” involves watching idealized visions of human valor and resourcefulness, and those visions must unfold in a way—and in a world—that retain meaning and relevance for us.
In the actual March Madness tournament, competing teams win or lose on the basis of how well they perform on the basketball court. Those that sink more shots than their opponents do in 40 minutes of play move to the next round; the opposing teams don’t. It is decidedly not a popularity contest. If it were, then Duke would always fall in an early round to another team, one that people don’t love to hate. By the same token, if the “World’s Favorite Detective” tourney were to follow the meritocratic model of the NCAA event, then Marlowe and Bosch would need to go head-to-head in the same arena of detection. How would Marlowe fare in a battle against the kinds of demons (a serial killer, a nest of enemies at the heart of the LAPD, the memory of a murdered prostitute mother) that Bosch must confront in his cases? How would Bosch handle the petty oligarchs and two-bit gangsters who fill Marlowe’s life with intrigue? Hard to say, and pretty silly to think about.
In the end, either you like a man’s pose or you don’t. (The same goes for a woman’s pose, of course.)
I’ve read only one Harry Bosch novel—The Black Echo (1992), the first one that Connelly wrote—and I haven’t felt an urge to read any others. Bosch wouldn’t make the Sweet Sixteen of my list of favorite detectives. His Los Angeles contains more bombast, more larger-than-life melodrama, than I like to see in a fictional world, and his engagement with that world is too claustrophobically personal for my taste. I prefer the more detached style that Marlowe brings to his world. And I prefer that world of his, distant though it may be from our own. He’s a detective worth watching (and, yes, voting for) again and again.