From The Streets

The following essay won an achievement in academic writing award from my college. I’ve got to excerpt the piece for the awards program, but I felt like publishing the entire thing here. The assignment was to discuss alliegences as they related to certain pieces we were reading in class (“Losing Face”, “Barbeque”). I wound up talking about Raymond Chandler and Whit Stillman…

It was cold in Los Angeles as 1944 came to a close, and Raymond Chandler finished out a very good couple of years. After spending much of his adult life as an accountant, the fifty-six-year old reinvented himself as one of the preeminent crime writers in America. Starting with aggressive, violent stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask, Chandler soon turned to novels, creating the detective hero Phillip Marlowe in 1939’s The Big Sleep. Two more Marlowe novels followed, and in 1943, Paramount Pictures hired him to co-write the screenplay for Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder (Chandler 1058-1059). Despite calling his collaboration with Wilder an “agonizing experience,” when Paramount offered him $1,250 dollars a week as an in-house screenwriter, he accepted (Hiney 144-145). Double Indemnity came out in 1944 to great acclaim – and, more important, box office success – and the picture garnered an Oscar nomination for Chandler and Wilder’s screenplay. Though the alcoholic Chandler had started drinking again in 1944, cheated on his wife, and mourned the loss of his cat, he became popular at Paramount, and found steady work as a script doctor focusing on dialogue. He was well regarded by fans of detective fiction, and they often wrote to him, requesting his thoughts on the genre.

One of those fans was Charles Morton, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He liked the Philip Marlowe character, and asked Chandler to contribute an essay on detective fiction for the Atlantic’s December issue. Chandler submitted a piece that, among other things, lambasted publicity agents, theorized that English writers were “the best dull writers” in the world, and called Sherlock Holmes “an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue” (Chandler 985, 980). Despite his best efforts at trolling, it was a celebration of realist fiction. He titled the piece “The Simple Art of Murder,” and, in its final sections, summed up his idea of what a hero in a realistic story, detective or otherwise, ought to be:

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it” (Chandler 991-992).

In the realist television series The Wire, Chandler’s man of honor is William “Bunk” Moreland, the hard-working detective. Unlike his sometimes partner Jimmy McNulty, the Bunk has found a way to operate inside the rotting system of the Baltimore Police Department. He keeps his head down. He works his cases and works them hard. He leaves The Wire much the way he enters it: standing over a dead body, smoking his cigar, bitching about what it’s going to take to solve the case. Along the way, he voices a summation of Chandler’s hero in much fewer words than the man himself did in 1944.

“A man must have a code.” Bunk speaks this line in “One Arrest,” episode seven of The Wire’s first season. The camera pushes in on Bunk as he says it, leaning back in his chair, regarding the man across from him: fearsome stickup man Omar Little. Like the Bunk and Chandler’s hero, Omar has his own code as well. As he puts it, “don’t get it twisted, I do some dirt too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game.” The game is drug dealing, and Omar makes his living by robbing them. However, when one of those drug dealers executes a workingman for testifying in open court, Omar witnesses the crime. The Bunk is responsible for the case, and meets Omar for the first time.

It is not the last time these two characters meet on The Wire, and their shared alliances go deeper than personal ethics. Soon after Bunk declares, “A man must have a code” in “One Arrest,” Omar realizes he went to Edmonson High School with Bunk. The detective was a year older, but Omar hasn’t forgotten the first lacrosse-playing black man he ever saw. Edmonton, and their neighborhood, returns in “Homecoming,” the sixth episode of The Wire’s third season.  In that episode, Bunk finds himself confronting Omar, who stymied a murder investigation. Omar insists that no matter how hard Bunk tries, nobody will talk to him, and that the case doesn’t matter. Bunk explodes with anger in an appeal to Omar’s affection for their shared background:

“I was a few years ahead of you at Edmonson, but I know you remember the neighborhood, how it was…As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies…Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”

The words have an effect on Omar, or, as an associate later puts it, “conscience do cost.” Omar finds himself struggling in quiet: Does he help Bunk with his case, and in doing so, help the community he grew up in, the community he still lives in? Or does he obey his personal code and in doing so, keep his allegiance to himself? Omar at last decides to help Bunk, choosing his allegiance to “the community” over himself, but just as fast, he’s back on the prowl, whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” This pattern of shifting allegiances, between personal loyalty and fidelity to one’s community, repeats throughout The Wire.

Ignacio, the smart-mouthed protagonist of Carlos Hernandez’s story “Losing Face” is young, but he is already headed down Chandler’s mean streets, unafraid and untarnished. He, too, has a code, so much so that his friends call him “the cop whisperer” (Hernandez 117).  His code isn’t much – be respectful, don’t break the law, and talk well – but he uses it in service to his community. Ignacio is a student at Bronx Science, and lives in a Latino neighborhood. Many of his friends often get into trouble with the police, and it’s Ignacio who steps in to help him out. His ability to “speak whitey” leads him to pull many of his “boys” out of the back of a cop car. Later in “Losing Face,” we learn that Ignacio has a father who “skipped town with some stripper and headed for Florida.” These actions, and the actions of abusive parents he’s witnessed, have taught him “what kind of man not to be” (Hernandez 120). Throughout the story, the reader learns of Ignacio plans to attend college for law enforcement, and although he doesn’t confirm it, the reader comes away from “Losing Face” thinking that Ignacio will continue to live in his neighborhood, being “the cop whisperer.” He’s not going to run out like his father; he’s going to stay and use his personal code – and his skills — to help a community he feels loyal to. Bunk would like this kid from the Bronx.

The Chandler-Bunk challenge, “a man must have a code,” appears in places other than modern epics about the decline of the American city and detective novels. The speaker in James Tyne’s poem “At A Barbeque for R.C. One Week after He Is Out of Iraq” wants to ask R.C. about his time as a soldier in Iraq. He sees the “curl of scarred flesh” that hangs “like a question I can’t ask” (Tynes). The fact that he can’t ask the question indicates he wants to. He can’t. Starting from the first two lines, the speaker indicates that R.C., tossing back whiskey, is not yet out of Iraq. The speaker has an allegiance to his friend. He’s got to keep things “light” and “brief,” avoiding the big questions, the important topics. The speaker has a curiosity about R.C.’s time in Iraq, but he understands his loyalty is to his friend. When R.C. mutters about “so many goddamned/kids” and asks if the speaker “knows what/the color of brains really is,” the speaker realizes that the best thing he can do in that moment is to answer “the ribs/are getting cold.” It’s an invitation to sit down with his family and eat. Those final lines solidify the speaker’s allegiance to R.C. The speaker may want to ask that question evoked by the scars, but Mom’s calling, the kids are ready to eat, and the ribs are getting cold. Perhaps he can remind R.C. that he, too, is part of a community.

A similar bit of self-reflection occurs in the film The Last Days of Disco. Like Omar, nightclub flunky Des McGrath finds himself faced with a choice between following one’s personal code and doing the right thing. Des has decided to do neither, and is fleeing to Barcelona, when he remarks:

“You know that Shakespearean admonition, “To thine own self be true?” It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self’ is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad?”

You can see him thinking on screen during this, though it’s less about him developing an honor code and more about him defending one he’s put together already. He doesn’t want to be seen as a coward, but he’s pledged to be true to himself, and at that moment in the film, the right thing for a coward to do is run away. However, he does return before The Last Days of Disco to testify in a criminal case like Omar. (Though his is about money laundering and not murder.) And like Omar, Des remains unchanged by his experience. He’s still an over-intelligent, manipulative jerk who Raymond Chandler’s “unusual man” would probably smack the crap out of. But he’s found a way  — like Bunk, Ignacio, and the speaker of “At A Barbeque…” – to be true to one’s personal honor code while serving someone else or a greater good.

When Raymond Chandler wrote “The Simple Art of Murder,” he, in all likelihood, wasn’t thinking of The Last Days of Disco’s yuppie characters or the speaker of “At A Barbeque…” His archetype still applies, though The Wire’s exploration of that through Bunk and Omar’s relationship lends it a greater weight than the broad strokes of Chandler’s essay. You can be a stick-up thief, a smart-assed kid from the Bronx, a doorman at a pastiche of Studio 54, or a friend wondering if your buddy is ever going to be okay. It all comes down to this: “A man must have a code.” And even if a man has a code, there will come a day when that code will be challenged by a greater allegiance. It is then that he must choose, and the choice may surprise him.

Cited Works

“Back Burners” Wr. Joy Lusco. Story by David Simon & Joy Lusco. HBO. November 7, 2004. DVD.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” Later Novels & Other Writings. Notes by Frank McShane. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Hernandez, Carlos. “Losing Face.” You Don’t Have A Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens. Ed. Sarah Cortez. Houston: Atte Publico Press, 2011.

Hiney, Tom. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.

“Homecoming.” The Wire. Wr. Rafael Alvarez. Story by David Simon & Rafael Alvarez. HBO. October 31, 2004. DVD.

Last Days of Disco, The. Dir. Whit Stillman. Perf. Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin. Polygram, 1998. DVD

“One Arrest.” The Wire. Wr. Rafael Alvarez. Story by David Simon & Ed Burns. HBO. July 21, 2002.  Mp4.

Tynes, James. “At A Barbeque for R.C. One Week after He Is Back from Iraq.” New America: Contemporary Literature for Urban America. Ed. Holly Messitt and James Tolan. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012.

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