Humanized Detectives: Cuff and Marlowe

Mystery and Archetypal Modification

In both The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, the authors develop the very concept of mystery through archetypal modification: the process by or through which authors take a familiar trope, truism, or character template and add a slight twist or bend to it, but not so much so that it is entirely novel or unfamiliar to readers. Rather, Collins and Chandlers changed the archetype of the detective just enough to enrich the mystery genre and the concept of mystery itself.[1]


Collins and Chandler, in particular, undertake this archetypal modification by revealing and emphasizing the epistemological limitations of their characters, particularly those of their detectives, in attempting to solve complex mysteries. Whereas the detective characters in comparable works of this same time period, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue & The Purloined Letter as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, seem to be impeccably intelligent and brilliant truth-finders, capable of deducing incredibly minute details from overwhelmingly opaque and general circumstances, The Moonstone and The Long Goodbye bring a sense of intellectual humility to this archetype. Doing so, paradoxically, provides both the genre and the concept of mystery with an important element of realism.

Their development of the humanized detective, as I shall use the term, is one who lacks the ability, either in scope or degree, of the Dupins and Holmeses. That is to say, the humanized detective is not one who is omniscient: not even close, to be quite frank. The humanized detective is best seen as the typical or normal (in the sense of being unremarkable or plain or ordinary).

This archetypal enhancement serves a twofold function. On one hand, the detective is portrayed more humbly to the reader, no longer the inexplicably intelligent investigator, but more relatable to the common person in aptitude and thought process. On the other, the mystery in which the various characters, the detective included, find themselves is enriched by a more detailed description of setting as well as an increase in psychological complexity due to the former’s recasting.

The Moonstone (Collins)

In The Moonstone, Collins utilizes multiple narratives to demonstrate the sheer volume of information that a detective character must sift through in order to get even close to successfully solving a mystery. Each suspect brings his/her own perspective about the stolen gem based on, among other things, his/her social status, level of education, and familial purpose within the Verinder household. As a result of the humanization of Detective Cuff, mystery itself becomes inseparable from the relationships that are interwoven among the various characters of the novel.

Detective Cuff, who is openly praised for his abilities to provide solutions to mysteries of all varieties, is ultimately unsuccessful in his encounter with the mystery of the stolen moonstone. Although Detective Cuff certainly fared better than Superintendent Seegrave in deducing the forensic importance of the smudged paint on the doorknob, he incorrectly, though understandably, pegged Rachel Verinder as the culprit on grounds of a hidden debt owed to another party.

Detective Cuff’s failure was an instance in which the detective gathered clues and testimony, pieced together a view which incorporated all the seemingly meaningful evidence, and still erred in his final judgment. Though Detective Cuff may have started to tread the path towards truth, it was not fully walked until much later in the novel thanks to assistance from Ezra Jennings, Dr. Candy’s assistant, and Franklin Blake, Rachel Verinder’s cousin and amour. Yet even this could not have been properly accomplished without assistance from several more individuals as the consequences of several more interconnected events (and so on!).

In his article “Wilkie Collins and the Detective Story,” literary scholar Robert P. Ashley praises Collins thoroughly for his works. In recalling Collins’s literary contributions such as “the fair-play method, the least-likely-person motif, and the humanized detective,” Ashley claims “Collins…served as the link between Poe and Conan Doyle” (53). Chronologically speaking, Ashley is correct. Collins’s works did come in between those of Poe and Conan Doyle, during the course of the 19th century. However, conceptually, Collins’s detective archetype is prior to Poe’s Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Holmes.

Put another way, one can categorize these detectives by their mental keenness (or intelligence or cognitive abilities) which, in turn, directly affects their accuracy and capability in solving mysteries. Cuff represents a more human detective, in the sense of being inclined to make mistakes, than do either Dupin or Holmes. If one looks at the development of the detective archetype among these three figures, the link would actually place Cuff at one end of the spectrum to Dupin who would find himself somewhere in the middle to Holmes who would find himself at the opposite end of the spectrum from Cuff. In doing this, we arrange the detective archetype from his most human-like form to his most perfected form.

The Long Goodbye (Chandler)

Though Chandler uses just one narrative, his work is no less shrouded in mystery. Nor is his detective archetype, Philip Marlowe, any less humanized. As The Long Goodbye progresses, the reader is exposed to a different methodology from that of Cuff, though Marlowe is similarly epistemologically limited.

Marlowe receives some insider information about doctors who may be concealing Wade as the latter recovers from his alcohol induced stupor. Marlowe receives this vital information from an illicit organization to which he has a previous connection. Yet upon receiving this information, there are three different doctors who could be helpful in tracking down Wade. Marlowe admits that he has to slowly but systematically visit each and ask intrusive questions, gauging each one’s responses so as to determine his next course of action.

Marlowe is also humanized through the reader’s access to his psychological traits. Marlowe’s thought process and behavior is one to which many readers can intimately relate, from his consumption of alcohol to his cynicism towards the superficiality of society’s wealthy to his unwillingness to let injustices become commonplace. Moreover, he lacks the standard detachment found in many instances of the detective archetype. Whereas other detective characters maintain a certain psychological or even physical distance from potential suspects and accomplices, Marlowe finds himself in the middle of almost every unfolding action and reaction.

It is here that the humanization of these detectives takes on a striking contrast. Referring back to the information gathered about the doctors who may have been harboring Wade, Marlowe stands apart from Dupin, Sherlock, and even Cuff, by relying on a mobile trial and error method where as other comparable detectives rely heavily on deductive reasoning and stationery observation. In the other mysteries, the detective works more within a confined space and with a set amount of individuals. This is not the case with Marlowe who has to cover a potentially immense sprawl of land and individuals.

Moreover, though Cuff appears haughty and even eccentric at points, such as his fascination with roses and their proper cultivation techniques, Marlowe takes on a role that makes him an everyman, a man of the masses, for standing up to individuals and organizations that are more powerful and influential than he is. Marlowe thus come across as more of a hero while Cuff comes across as more of a misunderstood character, if not a downright dunce.

But despite their differences in methodology, accuracy, and personality, both Cuff and Marlowe represent a shift from the more traditional depictions of the detective archetype. In both works, the detective does not reason his way neatly to an ultimately accurate conclusion. The process is rather messy, haphazard, and piecemeal.

Acknowledgment of these traits imbues the concept of mystery with complexity and, by association, realism. The complexity comes from the introduction of two distinct elements, the first of which was the modification of the detective archetype. Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes focus more on deciphering impersonal clues and inspecting inanimate objects. Chandler’s Marlowe and Collins’s Cuff, on the other hand, explore more of the psychological and interpersonal aspects of a mystery.

The complexity added to mystery also comes from the exposure to and interaction with larger (more expansive and open) physical settings. Collins’s Cuff is still limited to a smaller environment than Chandler’s Marlowe, exploring the Verinder house and nearby landscapes, but both detectives explore areas beyond where the crime is committed to get a better understanding of the case. They must expand their perspective to include more information that, hopefully, will be relevant to providing a solution to a mystery.

These elements represent realism in that mysteries are rarely simple and that they are rarely solved by Savant stature detectives. Granted, there are various notable exceptions based in real events, but the general rule seems to be that mystery is something to be wrestled with intensely and over an extended period of time. Just as life is full of false starts, ambiguity, and disappointment despite our best intentions, insofar as it is a core component of human existence, mystery is too.


NOTE: [1] Though the typical definition or understanding of an archetype would emphasize the universality or universal appeal of the idea/concept/form, my own use of the term is not as stringent. Rather, an archetype can be local, state-wide, regional, national, and global on any or all of these scales. It does not need to apply to everyone or even to a majority of people. It just has to be sufficiently recognizable and common. In one sense, this is quite similar to the Sorites Paradox.

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