S. Swann, Private Investigator (1)


It was one of those days …. I had sat idling at my desk for hours, smoking and watching the shadows of the venetian blinds advancing ever so slowly on the opposite wall. But nobody had called. Nobody needed the services of S. Swann, Private Investigator. Well, I would wait for those creeping shadows to reach the right hand corner of the wall, and then I’ d just call it a day. Cheered by this virile resolve, I started tapping an expense note for the last client I ‘d had - last month or so. Tap. Tap. Tap. This typewriter sure made a lot of noise. Tap. Tap. Tap . Then I looked up and saw a shadow behind the smoked glass door, a shadow knocking like hell on the glass….

At this point a stunning lady, clad in black, wearing a veiled hat, should enter. Upon which our cynical private eye falls in love precipitously and embarks on a tumultuous investigation fraught with danger, deceptions & double-binds. After having disentangled all kinds of plots and subplots, our private eye then finds himself again alone in his office , bruised but unbroken, smoking.

I absolutely adore these classical noir detective stories , with their wise-cracking, melancholy private eyes and their scheming, stunning ladies in black. In younger days I have devoured all the books by Chandler, Hammett, … . And nothing like those 40s and 50s black &white film versions ( ah, the iconic Humphrey Bogart with hat, trench coat , and cigarette dangling from his lips …). From the classics I then soon branched out to even tougher stuff: the mono-syllabic Mickey Spillane, the Goodis-tales from the gutter, JH Chase’s and William Irish’s dark spells and, later on, James Ellroy’s almost baroque, violent LA stories.

My living quarters of the time reflected this infatuation: they of course had blinds instead of curtains and I even had a Fedora-hat lying about on a cupboard (though I did not go as far as wearing it in public). Not to mention my youthful smoking mannerisms which sure drew upon PI theatrics. And then there were my lonely city rambles walking hours and hours on end, seeking out seedy districts, shady station neighborhoods, river quays, decaying industrial towns ), as well as my then predilection for disreputable “gin-joints” …

Well, I have curtains instead of blinds now, I quit smoking, I do not walk into gin-joints anymore and art and philosophy books have almost crowded out crime on my book-shelves. But mind you, I did pick my philosophical allegiances carefully! And my reverence for Walter Benjamin, the most poetic and urban of all philosophers, has everything to do with the redemptive narrative he offered for those days of yore, those many days spent in aimless reading and wandering.

Here was a philosopher who linked the modern city’s avalanche of sensations, its crowds of anonymous persons to the birth of the detective story. « Man is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experience », he is bombarded by sensations and bits of information without any connection. When walking the streets we encounter numerous anonymous people, all wrapped up in their private stories and interests. People can disappear into the crowd, so many things could happen at any turn of the street. But though we all share the same cramped sidewalks and undergrounds, we do not share a common experience or story, we do not know each others’ tales or secrets.

So enter the detective story, with the urban detective … who “walks these mean streets” (2) , who follows the traces, disentangles the secrets… Or enter the flâneur, the observing flâneur, who can legitimize his idle loitering & strolling by becoming a detective. “No matter what trail the flâneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime”. (3)

Now I don’t know whether Benjamin has ever read any Chandler or Hammett. In any case, his discourse about detectives and flâneurs goes back to the 19th century, to Edgar Allan Poe and to Baudelaire.

Yes, to Baudelaire…. the 19th century urban poet by excellence, and whose poem “à une passante” , “to a passer by” (4) evokes the hustle and bustle of a street scene , and how, suddenly, amidst the crowd one can come under the spell of a passer by , a radiating presence , a fleeting & fatal beauty that strikes and then, is gone forever …… "For I know not where you flee, you know not where I go"

Benjamin comments: “this is the look of the object of a love which only a city-dweller experiences, which Baudelaire captured for poetry, and of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfillment.” (5)

This, of course, is also the kind of fatal collisions with femme fatales which Chandler & co captured for the gritty detective novel.

And the kind of collision amidst a whirling urban crowd which Edith Piaf sang about in her captivating, roiling song
“La Foule” / “The Crowd”


Read on for accompanying lyrics in the notes
(1) The kind of blog-post you get when people start talking about Chandler and philosophy (blame Phoenix!)
(2) Chandler - The Simple Art of Murder: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man … He is a relatively poor man or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.”
(3) Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”
(4) Baudelaire - Les fleurs du mal « à une passante »
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa […]
Un éclair … puis la nuit! Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité ?
Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici ! Trop tard ! Jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
O toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais !
(English Translation from Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”
The deafening street was screaming all around me.
Tall, slender, in deep mourning – majestic grief –
a woman made her way […]
A lightning-flash … then night! – O fleeting beauty
Whose glance all of a sudden gave me new birth,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?
Far, far from here! Too late! Or maybe, never?
For I know not where you flee, you know not where I go,
O you I would have loved (o you who knew it too)
(5) Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”
(6) les paroles de La Foule


4 comments:

Phoenix said...

:-) aah, the mysterious P.I.Swann, with the curtains half-drawn (?) engulfed in reams of philosophy, dissecting the mysteries of life that one bumps into on bubbling kerbsides and virtual gin joints...and somehow seamlessly, incredibly, melding these seemingly mundane grubby bits and pieces with high art. brilliant, absolutely. :-)

love the lines by Baudelaire, and so familiar the scene...stillborn urban romance capsules. makes it more poignant, does it not.

p.s. I really do fancy chandler's Marlowe and his loner straight-talking rugged person...the one who doesnt have to try too hard. sigh. :-D

ffflaneur said...

oh no, wide-open curtains really wouldn't become a PI

what an expression! as powerful as a photographic zoom : your "stillborn urban romance capsules"

and yes, they're great escapist alter ego's : those Marlowes & Sam Spade's --- I bet that Chandler -book has made it by now to the top of the pile! :)

antonia said...

where is the second part of the private investigator adventures of S. Swann? and what happened to the Fedora-hat? (which colour???) i have at home her the letters of chandler, shall i read them?

ffflaneur said...

the fedora-hat most probably was not a fedora-hat. it was a grey hat, bought cheaply in a second hand shop. And it has just quietly disappeared....

don't know about Chandler's letters, they might be very boring seeing as how he wrote his books to find an adventurous life.

the second part?? Oh, but PI S. Swann has been out of business for a long long time now....